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!

CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO ARTICLE

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.

This Crazy Old World!

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” Romans 12: 2

Mom with coffee
At the coffee shop in 2017

I want to share with you that I have been thinking about my mother quite a lot these days. It’s been a fragile month. She lives in Ashland, Wisconsin close to my younger sister—which is a real gift right now. My mother has been hospitalized twice in the past month, been to rehab once and has now been placed on palliative care. My sister has spent many nights at the hospital, even more nights with our mother and has been pretty much on 24/7 call for the whole time. I can’t decide if I am grateful that I have escaped that level of care or if I am grieving that I can’t be the one to provide that care.

But I can tell that I have been thinking quite a lot of my mother these days. The topic of death has loomed in nearly every conversation—sometimes overtly and sometimes in the sacred pauses between sentences. But all three of us know that this is likely a letting go time and a time to be grateful for the life we have shared together.

But this blog is not really about her health or my grief; it is about how her potential earthly end has prodded me to think about what gifts I inherited from her.

I want to be clear here that I only really came to know my mom much later in my life. My parents divorced when I was three years old and, with the exception of a handful of visits in early childhood, I didn’t reconnect with my mom until I was 32 years old and had two children of my own. I don’t know my mother in the same way children who speak of the mother/child bond do. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t connect and learn to appreciate and love each other as two adults who were just about as different as we could be—or so I thought!

PrayingOne of the things I remember very clearly from our early visits was that my mom had a spiritual practice that I have not seen duplicated in all the years of my ministry. For many years, my mom didn’t feel that she was properly prepared for the day until she had engaged in a full four hours of deeply intimate prayer. 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. every day was reserved for prayer and meditation. Her rationale was that she didn’t want to be conformed to this world, but to God’s world, and it took her four hours a day to ground herself in God’s world before being ready to face our world.

I was a young minister serving in Racine, Wisconsin at the time and I honestly thought such devotion bordered on crazy. I mean a good long half hour prayer is a true feat (try that on Sunday and you’ll get fired!), but four hours of it a day! That’s nuts, I thought.

Ironically enough I was known to regularly stay up most of a Saturday night crafting a well-honed sermon in those early years. I considered it completely normal and even admirable that I would still be writing at 2:00 a.m. while I could not see that my mother’s 4:00 a.m. morning ritual as an equal and superior sign of dedication to her God and her spiritual practice.

I am 59 years old now and guess what? I find myself saying, “I am becoming more like my mother every day.” I have to admit that I will never reach her four-hour, early morning standard of prayer, but every year that passes my own morning spiritual ritual gets just a little bit longer. Ten years ago I had a morning ritual of 30-45 minutes. Today it often borders on a full hour and a half of yoga, meditation and prayer journaling.

Mom and Me
A selfie with Mom

And this is what I have discovered—the “renewing of my mind,” as Romans states it, takes place almost exclusively during this time. I can feel the actual transformation that Paul speaks of taking place in my heart and soul during these quiet minutes and hours of solitude. I can physically feel the shift taking place inside of me as if God was in there pushing things around, reorganizing and remodeling.

I have become completely dependent on this time so that the moment I walk out of my front door I feel rooted in God’s world before making decisions in this world. The crazy thing is that I am sounding more and more like my mother every day. Her four-hour devotion was completely rooted in making sure that she was grounded in God’s world before being thrown into our world.

I am finally getting it. Once I walk out my front door there are horns honking, emails screaming for attention, phones humming on silent, unspoken expectations hiding behind words, and crazy, nutty stuff spewing from our leaders. This is my world. This our world.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” Romans 12: 2

When do you allow for God to do the actual work of transformation in your life? Is there a time carved out for God to renew you on a daily basis? Ask my mom and she’ll tell you it only takes four hours a day! I think you could probably get by on an hour and half, though, but I am just an amateur.

One of these days I am going to lose my wonderfully crazy old mom. But what made her crazy in my eyes was her refusal to be conformed to this world. I couldn’t see that thirty years ago.

Now I am turning into my mom. And that makes me really proud.

Thanks, Mom, for being crazy for the right stuff.

Nones, Dones and Drew

Meet my seatmate, Drew.

On Monday I flew from Portland to Fresno for my twice yearly synod forum where the ten presbytery leaders of the Synod of the Pacific share notes, learn from each other and challenge each other as we seek to serve our presbyteries with as much courage and love as our busy little bodies can muster.

Drew was sitting next me in the aisle seat and I was in a more chatty mood than my usual self (most of the time I use my flying time as permission to not have to talk to anyone, answer phones or check emails and enjoy the luxury of marinating in my own thoughts). I wanted to talk this time and Drew politely obliged.

featured imageI can’t say that I was looking for a blog topic, but I am amazed at how often a conversation in the day or two before my blog deadline turns into a blog topic. This was one of those times.

Drew and his wife (who was unfortunately seated a few rows ahead of her husband) were off to a tenth anniversary vacation visiting parks, wineries and whatever else might hit their fancy day to day. I also discovered this couple were no strangers to the church. Both had grown up in the Protestant church—she as a Presbyterian and he in a loose network of progressive Baptist churches. More importantly, following college graduation, they joined a church as a couple and he became the paid accompanist for the church and she a regular soloist.

nones and donesThen they moved to Oregon to teach music in Oregon public schools. It’s been two years now since they have attended church. I pressed a little more and tested out his knowledge of religious trends. I explained to him how we are referring to some people who don’t attend church as Nones and Dones—Nones being those who have no religious preference at all and Dones being those church faithful who have decided that they can be more faithful without the church than with it. I asked him if he felt like he and his wife fit in either category.

Drew didn’t hesitate at all before saying, “I have heard of the Nones and we definitely are not part of that group. A Christ-centered church is really important to us. But we also aren’t part of the Dones because eventually we hope to get back to church.”

I asked him what changed between the time when he and his wife were deeply engaged in the life of the church as musicians and now had not even looked for a new church in their new location. Drew responded, “Quite honestly, it is the first time in our lives that we have allowed ourselves to take two days off in a row without any responsibilities to work or church. By the time we finish teaching school on Fridays we are both pretty tired. Church feels like something we have to gear up for and we just really need to rest and enjoy some time.”

It got me thinking. Traditionally Sunday worship was intended as a way to observe Sabbath—a time of letting down and having permission to not work. My sophomoric understanding of the Jewish tradition is that all work was supposed to be performed on Friday before sundown so that a full twenty-four hours could be dedicated to one’s relationship with God and the enjoyment of the fruits of our labors. I was struck that for this childless, but working couple, that sabbath rest is what they were yearning for and that the church was not their first choice for sabbath possibilities.

BrunchIn fact, Drew admitted that they have begun to enjoy the Portland tradition of going out to brunch on either Saturday or Sunday. I shared that weekend brunch is like a religion in Portland and he added that it has some of the elements of church—people standing in line talking to each other, sharing in a community experience, and anticipating a good meal in the same way church folks anticipate a good sermon or choir anthem. He also said that the food is a big part of the experience reflecting that in past locations  where they lived there were chain restaurants where one could get breakfast, but in Portland the food is as much about experiencing and participating in the character and ethos of Portland.

But Drew said they are not done with the church. They are just enjoying a break for now after years of teaching during the week and prepping for church on the weekend. The good news is that Drew and his wife are likely to show up sometime in the coming months and years in one of our mainline Protestant congregations. He was very clear about what they want—a progressive, Christ-centered congregation that takes care of each other and has a choir steeped in classical music. He even asked for the names of the Presbyterian churches that fit that description which I gladly shared with him.

There has been a lot written about the Nones and Dones of the Pacific Northwest—those who are increasingly removed from the narrative of the institutional church. It was refreshing to meet a young man who didn’t fit either of those categories. He and his wife are neither none nor done, but for now, if they must make a choice between gearing up for church on Sundays or taking sabbath, they are going to choose sabbath (and maybe a brunch location with hundreds of other Portlanders).

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” reads the fourth commandment.

What does that mean in a 24/7 culture?

 

Names have been changed and liberties have been taken with the conversation to represent a composite of previous conversations of similar nature.

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

Signing Off…

In trust…

That is how I sign off many of my emails these days. I have sometimes wondered if my ending salutations don’t sound Christian enough for my audience. As a former church pastor and now presbytery staff I feel a certain amount of responsibility to reinforce our common life in Christ. Such salutations as “Sincerely,” “Cordially Yours,” and “Best,” don’t exude the Christian spirit that I want to communicate. On the other hand, I have noticed that I rarely use the more common “God Bless” or “In Christ” that is typical of someone like me who represents a Christian tradition.

ASUS 4 151
Trusting God in the Nevada desert

I have thought a lot about the effort I have put in over the years to find an ending salutation that fits me well and communicates the spirit that I want to leave at the end of an email or letter. I have come to believe that my “In trust…” salutation does exactly what I am hoping for. It isn’t so distinctly Christian in name as to feel exclusive to those who don’t share my faith. And it is deeply Christian enough to communicate the very heart of my faith.

There is a great deal that my Christian faith has given me over the years—a reminder that love lies at the heart of all relationships and action; that grace is almost always a good thing; and that some things are worth fighting for like peace, justice and the truth. But if I had to name one thing that my Christian faith has given me more than anything else, it would have to be learning to live life in trust. Believe me, this has been a major work in progress!

javardh-680975-unsplashI don’t feel that every email needs to end with the salutation, “In trust…” I often end emails with “Peace…” or “Peace, as always…” and occasionally “Blessings…” when I am sure the person on the other end will appreciate the softer version of “God bless.” But the “In trust…” salutation is the one that gets most closely to the heart of my faith and to the spirit that I want to convey at the end of my emails.

I don’t have anything against saying, “God Bless” or “In Christ.” It’s just that I work really hard to find language that connects with people. “God Bless” connects, but not in a universally way that makes me feel like I want other people to read my email. “In Christ” may connect with the specific person I am writing to (and I do sometimes use that salutation if my sole goal is to connect with that particular reader), but not to the broader crowd.

When I say, “In trust…” I am often communicating, “I don’t know where all of this is going, but I trust you, I trust our process, I trust our relationship, I trust God.” I am also saying, “God is not finished with us yet. I trust where God is taking us. This conversation and this relationship is to be continued.”

What I like about my ending salutation, “In trust…” is that it works just as well for Christians and non-Christians, for progressives and conservatives, for family and friends as well as strangers, for professional colleagues and intimate associates.

I think I am writing this because I have sometimes wondered if people worry that my salutations don’t sound Christian enough for a person in my position. But I have come to accept that there is nothing more Christian than to start my day and to end my emails with the words, “In trust…”

It’s a nice way to end a letter.

It’s an even better way to live a life…

Experiments in Worship

Okay, I will admit it! I played hooky this last Sunday from church.

Here is the story. A month ago I drove up to the Twin Lakes trail head on the east side of Mount Hood for what I thought was going to be a glorious powdery snowshoe adventure. It had just rained hard in Portland the two days before which usually means a few inches of the new fluffy white stuff 4,000 feet above us. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was playing by different rules that week and apparently the clouds dropped all their moisture on this side of the mountain and then passed over the Cascades Range with ne’er a wisp of snow.

The snowshoeing that day was awful—dirty, trampled down, icy pavement. Not only did it lack the magical beauty I was yearning for, it was also treacherous. The ice was so thick that the only people who had an even minimally enjoyable experience were those who left the snowshoes behind in favor of spiked hiking boots.

Twin Lakes
Upper Twin Lake

Last week Portland got dumped on again—this time with a messy combination of snow, rain and ice. I was confident that Mother Nature was not going to play her dirty trick on me two times in a row. There just had to be a whole new blanket of virgin snow up there this time, I thought. I was not disappointed. At least two feet of snow had fallen in the prior 48 hours and I was treated to a magical experience of sacred beauty, contemplative solitude, and rest and refreshment (that is, if you can consider an 8.5 mile leg-screaming snowshoe expedition restful and refreshing. Yes, I know I am a nut!). It was mostly cloudy, but it was still bathed in divine light!

I had planned the following day to consider what church I might visit and how many chores and errands I could check off my list before the day’s end. I got up, moved groggily through my normal morning routine of yoga, devotional reading and prayer journaling. As I considered my next step and the 10 a.m. start time for most church services I noticed that the bright yellow sun was out.

Twin Lakes snow
On the Twin Lakes trail

I was still a little wrung out from the overly ambitious snowshoe adventure from the previous day, but the taste of beauty and the hum of God’s presence was still echoing in my ears from the day prior. I knew that if I missed this day there might not be another snow day like this again until next year.

I didn’t ponder too long. On this sabbath day my soul needed to be back up in the mountains following a frigid wintry creek up to one of Oregon’s favorite treasures—Tawanamas Falls. As much as I love the worship, music, fellowship, and prayers of my Presbyterian people it was not strong enough to pull me away from the mountain on this day.

A steep, but short two-mile trek got me to the spot where the trail abruptly ended at the cliff where Cold Springs Creek plummets from a seventy-foot cliff. I took a short video of what I experienced as I made my way to a spot just under the falls (watch the video before you read on). As I let the camera roll I said out loud:

“I didn’t get into church today,

but I am pretty sure that I am in God’s sanctuary.”

Tawanamas Falls
Tawanamas Falls in the winter

I want to let you know that I have been engaged in a somewhat haphazard research project that I am calling “Experiments in Worship.” Since I started this position I have balanced my Sundays partly with preaching and worshiping with our Cascades churches with a host of other experiences. I have worshiped in a Mennonite church, an emerging church, a Unitarian church, and a United Church of Christ church. But I have also taken off to the mountains on occasion, walked silently along the river, and even slept in after a particularly stress-filled week.

In addition, during the week I am showing up at open mic venues, attending concerts and lectures, singing in a peace-themed choir, and meeting with people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and who are often deeply dedicated to compassionate ministries and services in the community.

There is a method to my madness. I have a deep hunch that much of the future of our Pacific Northwest churches is going emerge out the dialogue that takes place between our rich religious tradition and the experimental emerging spiritual expressions of our region. Too much focus on our tradition and we will die in place. Too much credence to that which is experimental and we will forever be unmoored.

Tawanamas snow
Lots of fresh powdery snow

Sunday I experimented with what it might mean to worship God on a spectacular and rare sunny day in the Cascades Range after a recent heavy snowfall. I was not disappointed. When I reached my destination, sat on my perch next to the icy waterfall and looked out I knew that I was sitting in a sanctuary of God’s own making. While I did not sing “For the Beauty of the Earth” or recite Psalm 148 at that moment I knew that I was experiencing the hymn and the psalm through the moist cold air, the constant hum of the Falls, the glistening white of the virgin snow, and the tiredness in my legs that told me I had earned this experience.

I made my way back to the trail head where my car was parked. I was full of the spirit. Joy was seeping from my bones. My body felt in rhythm with God’s body.

It was a nearly perfect day. It was as close to perfect as perfect can get. Almost perfect. Just about perfect.

The only thing missing were my people.

 

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

No changes necessary

“As we hang beneath the heavens; And we hover over hell; Our hearts become the instruments we learn to play so well.”

From Nexus, by Dan Fogelberg

the naked nowI thought of this verse as I was meditating on Richard Rohr’s book The Naked Now which is my current morning devotional book. He was talking about how we don’t really pray TO Christ. We pray THROUGH Christ, or better yet, he says, “Christ prays through us.” Then he added this lovely description, “We are always and forever the conduits, the instruments, the tuning forks, the receiver stations.”

Of course, I immediately thought of Fogelberg’s words about how our heart is the instrument that guides us as we float somewhere between heaven and hell, between that which is and that which is not yet, between life as it is and the kingdom as it will be. I wonder if our heart, more than our actions, is the bridge between the two.

When I was younger I was constantly trying to shape my life into something better, more mature, closer to the image of Christ. The assumption was that there was standard of perfection that existed somewhere outside of me and, if I could just see it, then I could discipline myself to become more perfected. Another way of saying it is that if I could name my personal pathologies I could also name the cure. If I could see what was wrong with me, then I could come up with a plan to make myself right.

Offering giftsI can’t tell exactly when that changed, but if my recollection is correct, I think it is when I began working with a spiritual director in my late 30’s. I remember being a little uncomfortable with it at first. My spiritual director refused to see my current behaviors, thoughts and feelings as a pathology. He treated everything that emerged from my heart–beautiful and ugly–as a gift. “It’s all good stuff,” he would say.

I spent three years with him and I fell in love with my own heart. I learned to love my fears, my anxieties, my passions, my desires, my hopes, and my despair. I learned to love my imperfections just as much as those areas where I had perfected life (okay, it was a very short list!). I learned to let Christ pray through my life and my craziness and my beauty and my ugliness and my every imperfection. I learned to let the honesty of my heart to become the instrument to which God had easiest access.

It was a wonderful revelation to discover that God loved this imperfect vessel just as much as God loved the image of perfection that I read in the Bible or carried in my head. “Just as I am without one plea,” became one of my favorite old timey hymns.

IMG_0094
Malin Community Church

If this only applied to our individual lives, I really should leave it up to our congregational pastors to do that work. I should not assume that I am responsible for the spiritual lives of all 14,000 Presbytery of the Cascades members. That is more of a burden than I want to bear. I do feel some sense of responsibility, but this level of spiritual nurture is not really my task. My task is to work with our 96 congregations and support our pastors as they work with our individual members.

But I have been wondering if my discovery twenty years ago where I learned to address my challenges not through the language of pathology, but through the language of the heart, has as much to teach our congregations as it does each of us individually. I wonder if my personal lesson about seeing all the contradictions and complexity of my life as gifts rather than deficits has a lesson for our congregations too.

  • What if all of our churches were already imperfectly perfect just as we are?
  • What if we don’t have to become anything different than what we already are?
  • What if we don’t have to become more Christ-like; we only have to let Christ work through our imperfect selves?
  • What if God was as interested in our lack of faith as the presence of our unshakeable faith?
  • What if our churches don’t need a cure from that which ails us, but only need to be loved for who we are today?
  • What if “Just as I am without one plea” was not just a lovely hymn, but a whole orientation toward life?

I look back over the last forty years of my adult life (yes, I am that old!) and marvel at how much a difference it has made to view my life not through the language of pathology, but through the belief that I am okay “just as I am” right now.

slothOne might worry that such radical self-acceptance would lead toward complacency, laziness and a laissez faire attitude. “Why work on self-improvement if I am already okay as I am,” we might ask. But I have noticed something—the more I believe that I am okay “just as I am” the more that God seems to set in motion the miracle of transformation.

I wonder if this is what Richard Rohr is referring to when he says, “We don’t pray to Christ” to make us better humans, “We allow Christ to pray through us.”

I am fine “just as I am.” We are all good “just as we are.”

Accept that and marvel at how much God transforms us into something else!

A Letter Reflecting on the Methodist Decision

(Author note:  Jules is my 30-year old child who came out as lesbian at age 19 and trans androgynous at age 28. They/their/them are preferred pronouns. I share this with their permission.)

Dear Jules,

This may seem like an odd letter to come from your dad at this time. I have a feeling that I am writing as much as a confessional for me as I am out of care for you. My motivations are not exactly clear, yet I feel that I need to share this with you.

I don’t know if you have been following the news of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church these last few days. In fact, as I say this I sort of smile, as I am aware that following church news is not something that you have done for a long time nor even feel compelled to do. But I do want to catch you up on it and then explain to you why I am writing.

gay coupleOur Methodist friends were wrestling this past weekend with the same issues we Presbyterians were wrestling with over four years ago in 2014. You know the issue I am talking about—the issue of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the leadership of our churches and the support of same sex marriages. You might remember from our conversations that we Presbyterians voted to take our prohibitive language out of our Book of Order which made room for churches and their leaders to become more inclusive. Some churches took advantage of the new freedom, some decided to make no changes to their historic stances, and some were so troubled by the “relaxing of standards” that they left the denomination.

I have been in touch with Brandon over these last few weeks, you know my Methodist preacher friend, as he was watching and praying his way through this in his denomination. Of course, you know what he was hoping for—a decision to finally free up his churches to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. I know Brandon and many of his colleagues and friends were disappointed when the General Conference voted for what was called the Traditional Plan. The title itself doesn’t need much explanation except to say that things didn’t change much. If the LGBTQ+ community didn’t feel very welcome ten years ago they may feel even more unwelcome today.

Of course, a vote by an international body doesn’t mean every individual church feels this way. It just means that the majority felt that way and those who disagreed are now left with how to respond in a way that feels faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have many Methodist friends who are deeply hurt by this recent vote.

So why am I writing to you? I am writing to you because I feel some conflict between my role as your father and my role as a Presbytery leader who is responsible for the spiritual lives of 96 churches and 14,000 members. You know that if I was just acting as your father I would send a heartfelt, sad, and possibly angry letter to our Methodist friends and tell them that this is personal. This cuts at the very fabric of our family. But as a religious leader I have to be cognizant of the diversity of the people in the pews—some who are ready to march in protest against this decision as well as those who are breathing a sigh of relief and applaud this decision of the Methodist world communion.

I want to have something pastoral to say to our own denomination. I want to have something prophetic to say to the people of our presbytery. This is not a time to be silent, but I am torn, as you probably can guess.

You know that I have enough of a counselor’s heart to know that I believe that all growth starts with accepting people where they are, giving them information and then watching the spirit move their hearts and their lives at a pace that is true to how they are psychologically built. I learned long ago when I was a probation officer that I can’t make people change. I can only make sure they have all the information and tools they need, understand the consequences of their actions, and then walk with them as they make their own choices. In the end, if I did that I always felt good about my presence, even if I had hoped for a different outcome for them.

But it still pains me. It pains me that I am choosing to be patient with people while you are carrying pepper spray because of the recent attacks on queer people in Portland. Am I letting you down by not driving around to every church in our presbytery and insisting that enough is enough? Anything short of full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in our presbytery will not be acceptable, is not a good reflection of Jesus’ life and not okay with this father. Or would I be letting our presbytery down if I came out too strongly on one side or another and delighted some of our churches and offended others splitting our presbytery into two distinct camps?

I cried big ol’ dad tears today when you told me that you have now learned to stay away from certain areas friendly to queers because they have become targets for attacks by the Proud Boys. I cried because within 24 hours of each other the Methodist Church majority just voted to say, “We are not going to make it feel any safer for your kind,” and you just told me that “queer hangouts” are not a safe place for you given the recent movement to target your kind. Is there any safe place for you, my dear one?

As a father this just kills me. As a father I want to march out of my house right now and make this right. As a father I want to toss out any calls for me to be tolerant and understanding. As a father I don’t want to hear that change takes time.

So why I am writing this letter? I think it is a confessional. It is a way to work through my conflicting feelings. It is a way to ask your forgiveness if I don’t take enough decisive action and to ask for my presbytery’s forgiveness if I take too much decisive action.

Jules, I know that I can’t promise you that I will make the church more inclusive and that it will ever feel safe enough for you to open your beautiful heart to them, to reveal your full-sleeved tattoos, and to share communion with them in a way that you know you are just as much a part of the body of Christ as anyone.

But I can promise you this. I will continue to love the people of my presbytery. I will continue to accept them for who they are now because that is who I am and how I work. I will continue to walk with them and work with them at a pace that they can handle.

But I will also tell them that this isn’t just about church polity. This isn’t just about political correctness. This is personal. This is Jesus stuff.

“Take your time,” I will say, “but know that every hour that you wait breaks a father’s heart.”

Keep your pepper spray handy, my lovely.

Love,

Dad

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

Armed with Beauty

“We fight back with beauty.”

god and improvThat was the brief nugget of wisdom I gleaned from my final reading of God, Improv and the Art of Living. I have a practice for my morning devotional to pick some sort of book that speaks to me, is broken up into short one-page sections, and gives me a different lens at which to look at life. I have spent the last two months making my way through MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s delightful book on living our lives as if we were on the improv stage. I chose it, one, because improv scares the bejesus out of me and, two, because I had this sense that life in the church is probably going to marked by a persistent improvisational nature for years, maybe decades, to come.

It’s been a good read and a good ride for me, these few minutes every morning with MaryAnn. Once again, she spoke directly to my heart earlier this week as she recounted circumstances that seemed too great to overcome or to find any hopeful outcome. In speaking to a friend who was facing a seemingly hopeless situation about how she coped the friend offered this beautiful sage-like wisdom:

“We fight back with beauty.”

She said it to me. She said it anyone who is feeling hopeless about their lives. She said it to an America that wonders if we will ever recover the unified “one nation” that we recite in our pledge. She said it to all those who have to find meaning outside of history and time.

hard workI have noticed this shift in myself over recent years. I know that when I was younger I was able to commit to goals and missions and causes in the belief that if I just worked hard enough, creatively enough and long enough I could almost single-handedly make the world more just, kinder, fairer, more merciful and humble. I don’t know how much of it is aging or our current environment, but I no longer have that same confidence in my abilities. I am just not big enough, strong enough, and influential enough to mold the world into the image that I have in my head and heart (and that I believe is faithful).

It’s not that I have given up. In fact, far from it.

But I have noticed a shift and this beautiful piece of wisdom, “We fight back with beauty,” touches on what is happening for me. I used to think about enjoying life once I had slain all the monsters around me and made just all of the injustices of life. “Work first, enjoyment later,” was my motto. The only problem is that the work just never stopped!

guitar on streetNow I do what I can do with the hours that I have and then I concentrate on creating or enjoying beauty. I play my guitar (not very beautifully, but I try!). I ride my bike over a rugged snow-capped mountain or along an eye-pleasing country road laden with wildflowers. I cook a good meal blending flavors and colors and arranging the elements as artistically as my clunky left brain allows me to do. I watch superhuman athletes throw a ball from thirty feet into a two-foot net. I walk meditatively along the river.

In a word, I fight back at the hopelessness that sometimes overwhelms me with creating and enjoying beauty. I may not be able to eradicate all of the weeds of the world, but I can plant one flower right at my own feet. I may not be able to make our political environment less vitriolic and hateful, but I can fill the space right around me with kindness, with love, and with poetic beauty.

Personally, I wish I had more fight in me. I wish I believed that if I just marched loudly one more time, or preached just the right fire and brimstone sermon, or put all of my hopes in the next I’ll-be-your-savior candidate that my work would finally be done. I would have been successful in creating an as-close-to-the-kingdom-of-God reality as has ever been done. But, dang it, I just don’t believe it. And because I don’t believe it I just can’t muster up the energy to spend the rest of my life fighting with anger with anger, and vitriol with vitriol.

arm in armBut I haven’t given up. I have just changed my weapon. I have replaced anger with love. I have decided that it is better to spend my energy creating beauty than destroying ugliness. I have decided that the way to the future is not the eradication of evil, but the expansion of goodness.

Maybe it’s a sign of aging. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity. Maybe it’s pure resignation. But whatever it is, I have decided—if I have to fight I will fight back with beauty. It may not change the whole world, but it changes my world.

And that is just going to have to be good enough for now.