The Great Ends: Just Do It!

One of the beauties of inviting a dialogue is that it uncovers realities that I hadn’t even planned on. That was definitely the case this week.

Last week I shared my experience of leading a congregation nearly thirty years ago as an idealistic, ambitious and, also, naïve and unseasoned pastor. I assumed that just because the church said they wanted to grow that it meant they were ready for the work and the changes that would accompany that growth. My mistake was that I was thinking more like an employee than a pastor. An employee carries out their employers wishes. Pastors treat churches more like patients—leading them to health, but not always doing everything the church asks for.

A number of people responded to my blog both in the comment section and privately. The one thing they all had in common was an acknowledgment that churches and groups always have a gap between their ideals and their reality. This was something I completely missed thirty years ago.

tattooed womanBut where my readers parted company with each other was in the ways they felt that they should deal with it. A couple of readers wrote important responses about the deep spiritual and psychological work that it takes for a congregation to come more into alignment with their actual ideals. Another reader who came to the PCUSA from an evangelical tradition acknowledged that he and his wife (who are younger) often felt the targets of an exclusive church culture (by virtue of their dress, hair, talk, music, etc.), but that the inclusive theology was so refreshing as to put up with the exclusive reality. Another reader talked about creating a congregational culture where everyone’s quirkiness is tolerated and appreciated.

I appreciated the short anecdote shared by one reader who told the story of the church who wanted to know what their pastor would do to help them grow. The potential pastor said, “That depends on how much you are willing to risk. You already have everyone who is like you here.” Dang! I wished I had that much wisdom thirty years ago!

Finally, I got one email from a church member who asked me if I had written the blog directly to their church—the implication being that my story mirrored nearly exactly the conflict they were experiencing. I let this person know that I was glad that the timing was good, but I didn’t have them specifically in mind. But I do know this story plays out one way or another in most of our churches. The lucky ones work through the conflict gracefully. But, even the ones who experience conflict are still better off than the ones who never allow the tension and awkwardness of growth to seep into their church community. Those are the churches who slowly die.

Different DrumM. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, speaks of three stages of community.

  1. Pseudo-community: where everyone seems to be getting along, but by virtue of a shallow culture that doesn’t allow much real truth-telling;
  2. Chaos: when some person or event reveals a truth that is in conflict with the reality of the community (even if not in conflict with the values), and;
  3. Authentic community: where everyone seems to be getting along in a culture of vulnerability, honesty and trust.

Scott Peck makes the point that congregations don’t just work through these stages and then settle permanently in Stage 3. He is careful to point out that authentic communities eventually become pseudo-communities again as what was once risky becomes normative. Healthy churches allow this cycle to play out on a continual basis and thus, build muscles to gracefully move through the awkward chaos stage.

Jerry Sternin who wrote The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems has been quoted to say, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

With regard to bringing our reality more in line with our theology Nike may have the best advice for us. “JUST DO IT!.”

Yes, there will likely be some conflict and chaos. But if M. Scott Peck is right, a little chaos is just one step away from true community.

To all the churches who are experiencing conflict because you are serious about a theology and a practice of inclusion, I say, “Bless you! You are on the right track.”

Just remember to be nice to each other along the way.

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

The Great Ends: Inclusion

“The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

That is the second of “The Six Great Ends of the Church.”

I want to get to this through a story because quite honestly I think it gets to the core of the contradictions inherit in how we have lived out this particular great end.

FamilyIn the mid-90’s I accepted a position to a church of 215 members that broadcasted the typical yearning of an aging congregation—“We want a pastor who can reach the families and young people of our community.” I was 33-years old at the time and felt like I was the perfect fit. I believed I had the pastoral sensitivity for the older members of the congregation while fitting the profile of one of those “families with young people” and, therefore, able to understand this underserved and under-represented demographic.

Over the next three years in a number of awkward fits and starts, I was able to lead the congregation to attracting about 90 new people, mostly young families to an evening Sunday worship service and gathering. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of the people had grown up in the church, but had abandoned it shortly after high school. Now, in their late 30’s and 40’s they thought of themselves more as “spiritual seekers.” In many ways, they represented the children of the older members of the church—grew up in the church and carried on the values of the church without the need to be in a church.

oil and waterThe short story is that my attempts were like mixing oil and water. It was an uncomfortable mix for many. When the group grew, it began to shift the perceived identity of the church in the community. It was said by many, “We are beginning to be seen as that church with the weird group on Sunday nights.” In order to avoid a church split the Session and I agreed to my resignation. With my resignation the ninety people also quit. And I left pastoral ministry.

Two years later leaders of this group approached me and asked if I would help them organize as some form of a church. A year later, they organized under the umbrella of the Unitarian Universalist denomination (UUCLC) and I spent three years voluntarily helping them charter the church while setting aside my ordination so as not to compete with the Presbyterian Church that had given birth to them. I grieved for years over the fact that the Presbyterian Church preferred that the group separate themselves than to go through the growing pains of including people very much like their own children.

The second great end of the PCUSA is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

There is clearly an uncomfortable tension between this great end and that experience. The church wanted families and young people, “but not those families and young people.” Were they not children of God also?

Most Presbyterians would support the idea that theologically we believe that all people are children of God. But it begs the question then, which children of God actually belong in the Presbyterian Church. How far does one stretch the boundaries of inclusion—Buddhists, agnostics, Muslims, skeptics, African-Americans, Baptists, LGBTQIA, spiritual seekers, etc.?

Is there a difference between whom we see as the children of God and those whom we welcome into our church buildings?

Stole Children 2I wear a stole sometimes when I preach called the “Children of the World Stole.” Every color of child is represented on that stole. But I am struck by the irony that we are proud of promoting diversity for children of God on our stoles, t-shirts, bumper stickers, banners, etc. But in the pews? That seems to be another matter.

Why is there is such a big difference between our good theology and our actual practice?

Have at it.

Your turn.

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

The Great Ends: The Ashland Response

As I have read and listened to the comments these last three weeks it has become clear that, with regard to The Great Ends of the Church, that two lenses are used to interpret them. In some cases it is an either/or and, for others, it is a bit of a both/and.

threadsResponses seemed to fit within a continuum based on our historical memory and our personal Christian experience. These two threads seemed to show up. Do the Great Ends represent the sins of a colonial and genocidal past? Or do they represent a Christian identity that keeps us rooted in a sacred purpose and community?

I heard the bristling response from those who hear in the language another example of a colonizing tradition. And I heard from those who found in the language a reminder of the riches of belonging to a community with a tradition of having a deeper (even divine) purpose.

One particular church community has found a way to marry both of those experiences—address the sins of a colonizing past and invite the individual members to join as a community in a deeper purpose. It is a deeper purpose rooted in one of the essential components of Reformed worship—corporate confession.

After my first blog on the subject, The Great Ends: Christian Arrogance, I heard immediately from the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Ashland, the Rev. Dan Fowler. The church had just held a ceremony to dedicate a plaque to acknowledge that their church was located on Native ancestral lands. It is important to listen to the short dedication and prayer. Listen here:

In addition, the Session of the church has committed to making regular reparation payments to the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes. They are also working to set up a scholarship account at Southern Oregon University for Native American students.

I am going to leave the blog here today and just ask you to listen to the dedication ceremony asking the following simple question for your response:

Is this something the Presbytery of the Cascades should encourage for all of our congregations?

Why or why not?

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

The Great Ends: Proclamation

Wow! I said, “Let me have it!” and you did.

It’s all good. This is a conversation that we must have in our tradition, by our churches and for our institution. I had a number of comments on the blog as well as a handful of emails responding to this past blog. There are so many issues that could be addressed, but rather than go down every rabbit hole I will move into the first Great End and look for some of the themes that emerged from the comments.

The First Great End: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

urban churchFirst, let me remind you why I invited you to step into this with me. Many of our churches have struggled with connecting with the broader culture, language and values of the people of their surrounding community. When I realized that my readership represented a cross section of people who are both in the church and beyond it (but still care enough to read my blog) I felt that this was an opportunity to have this conversation and for the people of our churches to listen in (and participate, as interested). The blog format provides a little more safety and anonymity to be honest without jeopardizing actual relationships in a church or community.

One of the things that is exceedingly clear in this dialogue is that we are suffering from the sins of our own past. Many of the comments referred to the damage that we have done in the name of Christian religion and for the sake of “bringing salvation to all humankind.” Whether it says it overtly in our great ends it is a history that most of us know. For many, they can’t hear the first great end, “Proclaiming the gospel for the salvation of humankind” without hearing colonization, imperialism, and an “us vs. them” attitude.

ListeningBut many other commenters saw the clear call to Christian identity. All of the language is rooted in scripture and, as one commenter noted, “It is Biblical.” This gets to the heart of this series. I asked the question, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian.” For many the answer is right here—to share the liberating message of Jesus Christ for the “salvation of” or least, for the good of all humankind.

I felt one commenter was able to hear both the reaction from those who bristled at the language and those who rely on this language for a sense of Christian identity and purpose. He posed (my paraphrase), “Is it possible for us to share our experience in a way that also honors the experience of others?”

I admit that underlying this series is the assumption that we now live in a globally interdependent world. I would also maintain that it is now arrogant to think that we are responsible for the salvation of all humankind. But this one commenter seemed to cut to the heart of this by posing a question that honored our Christian identity and experience without imposing that same experience on others.

diverse world

I wonder if this even deepens our concept of salvation. Might the word salvation (or something close to it) still be appropriate? Rather than thinking that salvation is based on people accepting our “gospel truth,” what if salvation is the natural and organic result of people sharing their experience, listening to the experience of others, and discovering God in the midst of relationship. What if salvation is not some far off reward for believing the right things, but a quality of life found in mutuality, respect, and appreciation for the rich diversity of humanity?

Could it be that this great end is still as foundational as ever, but that it needs some freshening up in language and a new lens that helps us hear it, interpret it and live it out in a globally interdependent world?

Thoughts?

Next week we will start unpacking the second Great End, “The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” Remember we are trying to answer two basic questions, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian,” and “How do we best communicate that to the rest of the world?”

Also, I will be highlighting the recent decisions of First Presbyterian Church, Ashland, as they wrestle with these issues in real and tangible ways.

Keep commenting and emailing me.

We won’t solve everything, but at least we are talking about things that matter.

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

The Great Ends: Christian Arrogance

I wonder if the dam is breaking.

I invited you all last week to join me in a dialogue to get to the heart of our Presbyterian identity and the language we use to communicate it to the world. Using “The Great Ends of the Church” to aid in this I expected that last week would just serve as an innocuous introduction. The real meat of this dialogue series would start with my reflections on the first great end—“The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

I was wrong!

floodingThe response was immediate and swift. From readers who are both inside and outside of the Church, as well as some who admit to being on the very edge of the Church, one theme stood out above all others—the Great Ends of the Church reveal a certain Christian arrogance, an assumption of religious superiority, and an obvious “us vs. them” mentality.

I had assumed that I would, with your help, run through these six great ends incisively looking for the values at their core. Then we would explore more accessible language to the everyday 21st century American. What I didn’t expect was a nearly unanimous gut level reaction that essentially said, “Get rid of the arrogance and maybe these six great ends are salvageable.”

One reader reported that she is absolutely committed to truth-telling in this time, but she is not hopeful that the church will survive its own self-inflicted wounds. Another reader provided an objective analysis as she wondered if where we are at is the result of the church being less an outgrowth of the movement of Jesus and more a reflection of the expansionistic imperialistic Roman empire. Another reader  acknowledged that he felt that not all of these great ends could or should go forward into the future.

It is not difficult to see the source of these reactions. The great ends use language of “proclaiming, maintaining, and preserving.” There is an implied assumption that we have been given a treasure that others don’t have. The language of being “a chosen people” is woven into the DNA of our great ends. With Presbyterians representing about 1 of every 285 people in America it is not difficult to see why a group that thinks they have THE gospel truth for all humanity seems just a wee bit arrogant.

Indiginous PeopleWhat was interesting about this week was this sense that a great convergence was happening. It is what makes me wonder if a cultural and ideological dam is breaking. While this invitation to a blog series revealed a visceral distaste for the Christian arrogance of our great ends we were also honoring Indigenous People’s Day in what we formerly celebrated as Columbus Day. We went from honoring a colonizer to honoring those who suffered at the hands of colonizing.

At the same time, I received a call from an executive in another denomination over concerns that our two denominations might be exposed for abusive practices in the establishment of missionary boarding schools. He said that it was just a matter of time before stories of “well-meaning” Christians are come to light for eradicating whole cultures in favor of a Christian identity.

Right wingAnd, all of this is happening while we are wrestling with our participation in the structural racism of our society. I could not help but notice that a white Christian nationalist could take all six of our great ends and make a case for their particular brand of religiously based terrorism. While I do not think very many Presbyterians would identity as white Christian nationalists, the ideology of white Christian nationalism has its roots in language very much like “The Great Ends of the Church.”

Is a cultural and ideological dam breaking? Has our particular brand of Presbyterianism run its course? Are our great ends salvageable? Is there too much Christian arrogance and us vs. them thinking to carry them into a future of global interdependence? Can a religion based on offering salvation to all people survive in a world not all that concerned about our particular brand of salvation?

Bible 2I have to admit that I write all of this with some fear and trepidation. In the back of my mind I can hear a voice saying, “Brian, as a church executive shouldn’t you be holding up and reinforcing the core values and assumptions of our tradition?” But, I have a louder and even deeper voice that is telling me that if we can’t answer these questions, the church as we know it will disappear into the annals of history. As I write I think of the lyrics to one of our old hymns, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right…” There it is again.

Readers this past week chimed in together, “Enough with the Christian arrogance!”

What do you think?

Am I being too harsh? Not harsh enough?

This is a dialogue.

Let me have it!

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

Insider Language

NOTE: This post is only for church people and non-church people. Everyone else can ignore!

Dear Readers,

The Presbytery of the Cascades is navigating a Strategic Planning process and developing new mission and vision statements. One of the threads that has shown up is a concern that in a time when we are trying to connect with the broader community we use too much “insider” language. Others have commented that our language isn’t religious enough and could fit any do-gooding non-profit.

two sidesThe fact that comments come from both sides of the spectrum tells me that this is a core issue that we must face. It goes to the very heart of who we are and how we relate to the world. It reflects the need to answer two very basic questions:

  • What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian?
  • How do we best communicate that to the rest of the world?

I am going to invite us into a dialogue that could last as little as six weeks to as many months as it takes to come out the other side of this. This is important and, quite honestly, why I accepted this position four years ago. I have a long-standing commitment to the values of the Presbyterian Church, but also to finding ways to communicate those values to a public that often bristles at church insider language.

Book of OrderThe Presbyterian Church (USA) has a Book of Order which represents one-half of our Constitution. I won’t bore with the details, but just know that it provides the philosophical and theological basis for who we are as well as the guidelines and rules for what we do. In the first foundational chapter (F-1.0304—yes, that is how exciting it is!), are named The Great Ends of the Church. They read:

The great ends of the Church are:

  • the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
  • the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
  • the maintenance of divine worship;
  • the preservation of the truth;
  • the promotion of social righteousness; and
  • the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

Over the coming weeks (and possibly months) I will provide some fodder for unpacking each of these in response to the two basic questions, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian?” and “How do we communicate that to the world?”

commentsI want to invite you to comment, respond and add your own thoughts. I will stay with each of the “great ends” for as long as it takes to unpack all the nuances of them—even if this dialogue lasts six months rather than six weeks. I won’t move to the second “great end” until we have squeezed everything we can out of the first “great end.” Seriously, tomes have been written on this stuff so we could be at this for a while if you decide it is worth engaging in. Quite honestly, I hope you do want to engage. The future of the Church depends on this dialogue.

We have a real gift and an opportunity here. The comment section in my blog reflects a pretty even split between people affiliated with a church and people for whom their spirituality has taken them beyond the church. Because I will be dealing with the language that we use to communicate our deepest values (“great ends”) it could be illuminating to hear from both groups of people and to see a rich dialogue develop.

The church needs to hear from the people beyond the church. And, I believe, those “spiritual but not religious” folks who are following my blog wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have some stake in the outcome of this.

Join in.

Be liberal with questions and comments.

Let the dialogue begin.

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

holy waiting

I will admit it. I am not the most patient person in the world. For those who know me best, you might find that to be a surprise. The truth is when I know that patience is the tool that is needed to get to a certain outcome, I can be incredibly patient. Where I am not patient is in waiting for a direction to materialize.

seesawIt has been an interesting few weeks and months and you have all been witness to it. I have seesawed back and forth from alerting you to the fact that Holy Breadcrumbs was changing, then retreating from the every week writing to later re-committing to a weekly rhythm and, almost as suddenly, backing off again.

There is a part of me that worries that this is not a sign of good strong consistent leadership. But I know my style well enough to know that I lead more in the style of a Henri Nouwen than I do a corporate CEO. I prefer to lead by inviting us all into our deeper humanness that by projecting an impenetrable strength. My vulnerability and my willingness to expose it is probably my greatest strength. And this pandemic has definitely exposed it!

waitingBut, back to my impatience with waiting. I have no problem waiting a year to take a planned trip. What I struggle with is waiting for life to provide the right opening for a trip. Give me a date and I can wait a lifetime. Provide no date and no guarantee and suddenly my patience runs very thin.

One of my astute readers who has been watching my internal wrestling match tried to give me permission to back off by saying, “Write when you have something to say.” Two months ago I was there, but the lack of regular weekly connection was unnerving me in this time of imposed isolation. So I committed to write again, but struggled with having something to say—a problem this preacher very rarely has!

Romans 12:12 reminds us, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” I do pretty well at the first and the third admonitions. I suck at the second one.

But, whether we are good at waiting or not, that is what this time calls for.

  • We wait for this most recent Delta Variant to run its course;
  • We wait to return to normal Sunday services and gatherings;
  • We wait to see how much of life will be the same on the other side of this pandemic;
  • We wait to see what our new reality will look like as we emerge from this pandemic;
  • We wait to see how much the pandemic has changed our commitments, our personalities, and our passions;
  • We wait to see how much our virtual reality has changed our relationships and our connections.
  • We wait to see who we are once the veil of the pandemic has been lifted.

I promise that I will write when I have something to say. Until then, I will wait with the rest of you.

Waiting sucks.

But it’s good for our character.

And it can be holy.

At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

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

In trust…

(I am on vacation this week. This is a reprint of an article from July, 2020 that seemed just as apropos today and because I am working especially hard on listening for my voice knowing that my readership includes a Pacific Northwest demographic that is both churches and spiritual but not religious.)

In trust…

Over the years I have noticed that I often close my emails and letters with the closing signature line, “In trust…” It has been something that has evolved over time. Early in my ministry I most often closed with the words, “In Christ.” I liked this closing at the time. It felt inclusive for the people and community I was working with thirty years ago. Even though I knew that there was a measure of diversity in the congregations that I served, I felt like the final words “In Christ” reminded us that whether we were “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” that we could still find our unity in the belief and language of being in Christ.

god bless youWhen I moved to a more rural area in my second call much of the community used “God Bless You” regardless of whether you were Christian or not. In the Presbyterian Church, however, I found that some members appreciated the salutation while others found it trite and so overused to be able to communicate much meaning. I began using the more general sounding “Blessings” as a way to connect with the “God Bless You” crowd and speak to those who wanted their spirituality without the perceived limits of God-talk.

I still use the “Blessings” language especially if my email or letter is specifically targeted to a Christian or religious audience. But more and more I am relying on the simple “In trust…” for most of my emails and letters. It seems to work for audiences that are specifically religious as well as audiences that are more secular or humanistic in nature. Trust is equally considered both a human value and a religious value.

path into unknownBut there is more to it and it has to do with the time in which we are living right now. It doesn’t matter whether one is a good pew-sitting Presbyterian or a happy-as-a-clam agnostic. We are all living in uncertain times. We are all in pilgrimage time. None of us, if we are honest with ourselves, has a clue about what life is going to look like in 12, 24, or 36 months.

Every time I sign off at the end of an email or a letter with the words “In trust…” I feel like I am speaking specifically to the time in which we are living and to the whole community. I feel like I am being a pastor not only to the church; I am being a pastor to the whole community. It was always how I imagined the pastorate should be—as much a voice to the community as a message to the church faithful.

coffeeshop
Coffee Culture!

This has been important to me. From the early years of ending my emails and letters with the closing, “In Christ” my attempt was to speak to as broad of an audience as possible. Over the years my closing line has evolved as our communities and churches have changed. “In Christ” eventually felt limiting as I moved from a part of the country that had a Christian majority to the Pacific Northwest where religious affiliation can’t be taken for granted. “God Bless You” felt the same way—too limiting if I was speaking to an audience beyond the church. Even the more general “Blessings” seemed slightly more inclusive, but it was still limited to a primarily religious audience.

ConnectionI write this not to advocate for a particular signature line for you or for your churches. The thing about signature lines is that they are personal. What works for me may not work for you. What works in your community may not work in the community just a few miles down the road. The important thing is not the words, but our ability to connect with each other in meaningful ways. The important thing for me is to convey that whether we are more religiously inclined or secular-focused that we are all in this together. We travel this path as one community, one people.

trustI can’t promise or predict what the future will look like. But I can promise that I will walk with you, no matter who you are and what you believe.

I can promise that I will live my life in trust and walk with you into an unknown future.

I wished I had more for you right now. But trust is just going to have to be good enough…at least for now.

In trust…

Brian

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

Oops! Wrong turn

Oops! Wrong Turn.

OOOPS! / Warning sign concept (Click for more)If I didn’t know any better I would think that this was a sign of being a complete flake. But I have been working with the process of institutional pilgrimage long enough to know that sometimes the best way forward is to the take the risk of making a few wrong turns.

One of those wrong turns happened this last week.

If you have been following my blog you know that my writing voice has shifted in recent months. I began sharing last January that the image of holy breadcrumbs wasn’t feeling quite right for our time. It worked well while I knew that a future vision was going to have to be teased out rather than as the result of some long-range strategic planning process. But as I turned the visioning work over to a strategic planning team my work in teasing out the vision ceased. My individual voice now matters less than the voice of the body of the presbytery.

Ever since then I have been looking for my unique voice again. I know that I will find my voice once the presbytery makes definite commitments, but between this shift in vision and the shifting emotional realities of the pandemic, I have been feeling a bit ungrounded.

BibleA few weeks ago, my soul was finally ready to do the work of becoming grounded again and finding my center. After much thought I felt I knew the answer. Having been a preacher for nearly three decades I felt like it was time to return to the weekly rhythm of scripture.

I shared that I had some hesitancy in doing this in that I knew a significant portion of my readership were not church-going folks. A return to scripture would likely not resonate with them, I felt. Nonetheless, I moved forward. I needed something to get my feet back on the ground again after a year of feeling tossed about by the circumstances of this crazy time.

Last week I started my new cycle as I wrestled with Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” It was a okay piece of work, but didn’t resonate deeply with a broad audience. I had only barely started to wrestle with this week’s scripture where Jesus tells the disciples, “Let the children come to me,” that I knew I had taken a wrong turn.

twistingReturning to scripture was not the answer. Not that scripture is bad. It just wasn’t the answer to this particular dilemma. I wasn’t sure what the answer was, but I knew this wasn’t it. Because my readership holds both church-going folks and those who think of themselves as more “spiritual than religious” I found myself twisting and contorting the texts trying to find a message that would be equally life-giving to my whole readership.

But I was working too hard at it. And for me, that is not a good sign. My writing has always come effortlessly and fluidly. I only need to get in touch with my own heart and the words just start flowing. People sometimes marvel that I can write something like this every week given the scope of my job. But seriously, writing for me is not all that different than cooking up a good meal. Once I have an image of what I want everything falls into place nicely.

As I pondered how I had I lost the easy effortless of my writing I discovered my answer—my role is not to speak from a specific narrative, but to speak to our common condition.

I shared my experience with my executive coach and she reminded me, “Brian, your real gift is your ability to use your own experience to connect with what is universal in all of us.” She was right. Over the years, I have learned to trust that the truth of my own experience will lead me to connect with the truth of our common experience.

So, here I go again—assuming that even in this blog about having taken a wrong turn that there is something in here for you.

metaphorWe are all clawing our way through this pandemic time, doing the best that we can, never sure we are getting it right, and making decisions where we aren’t sure if we are going forward or falling back. In recent months, I began to feel paralyzed. Without a definite future on which to count, my feet felt heavy. Decisions were hard to make and all decisions had an uncertainty to them. “Shall I go out and shop for groceries and connect with real human beings or shall I stay isolated at home and protect myself from an invisible virus?” In this environment, I shifted only to writing when I had something to say—which definitely wasn’t every week.

But I got pulled back in. I got tired of waiting for inspiration to come to me. I missed the feeling of knowing that people were counting on me to have a weekly pastoral/prophetic message on behalf of the presbytery. So I stepped back in to the ring. I found my back in.

oung man lost on the roadImmediately I realized I had made a wrong turn. Returning to scripture was not right. My voice is to speak to our common condition not from a pre-determined narrative.

So what is my message to you, my dear readers, on this day?

Sometimes we just have to choose a direction. It might be a wrong turn, but it is still better than sitting on our butts paralyzed.

Move forward and adjust as necessary.

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

The God/Goodness lens

“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus statueThose are the words presented in this Sunday’s lectionary from Mark 8: 27-38. Jesus is with his disciples when he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” When they answer that people are calling him John the Baptist, Elijah, or a great prophet, Jesus queries further and asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” The emphasis is on the word you.”

Whenever one interprets Scripture, it is important to recognize one’s own personal context. As I come to this scripture, I know two things about my context:

  1. I recognize that I am writing for my particular readership that is comprised of people who are committed to the Presbyterian Church and people who are not associated with institutional religion but who do think of themselves as being spiritual or faithful to the tradition of Jesus, and;
  2. That I am writing within a context where all of us (religious and spiritual alike) are unified by our struggle to stay mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in this time of tremendous disorientation and disruption.

standing by riverOne of my non-Presbyterian, spiritually-centered readers reminded me that this decision to “go back” to Scripture was probably more of a going forward as “one never enters the same river twice,” as he put it (you can see that he looks at life through a spiritual lens). He is right. In this “return” to Scripture I cannot but help to read it with new eyes because I am not the same person I was yesterday, one year ago, or ten years ago.

That became obvious to me as I wrestled with this particular scripture text. I immediately recognized that Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am” had at least two very different readings. For Christians, we often assume that this text is about seeing if the disciples see “the real Jesus.” Do they understand that Jesus is not just some run of the mill prophet, but actually the long-awaited Messiah?

But I don’t think that is the only way that this text needs to be understood. In fact, it was recognizing that my readership is much broader than the church-going audience that opened me up to. It is just as likely that Jesus was asking, “How do you perceive me? What is the lens through which you look at people and at life?”

lens glassesThe fact of the matter is that many different people perceived Jesus in many different ways. In this text, the disciples explain to Jesus that some people see him as John the Baptist. Others see him as the return of Elijah. Still others consider him a great prophet. We also know from other texts that some saw him as a rebel. Still others as a political threat. And others as one who was demon-possessed.

Could it be that what Jesus is really asking is, “When you look at someone do you see them as an object of your desires? Do you see them as a threat to your status quo? Or do you see the face of God and the spark of divinity in that person?” What if this text is not about Jesus needing the disciples’ affirmation about his identity, but is about Jesus posing to the disciples and all of us the question, “What is the lens through which you look at life?”

wildfireThis is a particularly tough time for all of us right now. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID. Many people are reporting increased mental health challenges. The climate seems to be acting up and acting out in ways that are destroying communities through fire, heat, floods and hurricanes. And to top it all off we Americans are in an apparent pissing match over individual liberties and the common good.

I will admit that the lens through which I look at life these days is often through a protective, security first lens. I hear the news and I see threats to my personal and our community existence. I see the disruption in our lives and I grieve a status quo normalcy that I once took for granted. I watch the vitriol in our communities and I start placing all people in us and them categories. In other words, when Jesus seems to ask, “How do you perceive life,” I know that I am guilty of looking at life through the lens of threats and barriers rather than through the lens of some divine unfolding.

Friends huggingHonestly, I know that I can’t get there yet. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to dismiss the pain and grief and anger of this time for some dismissive, Polyannish, it-is-God’s-will, throw away line. Yet, I do want something that softens my eyes and gives me a lens where every person and every event is no longer seen as just another threat in time when crisis has been built on top of crisis. I do want something that helps me believe that there is an unseen goodness at work among us in this time of soulful tearing. I do want something that relieves me of the PTSD-like symptoms where my body and mind almost expect more trauma on a day to day basis.

Jesus lived in a world where some people saw him as a threat, others as a rebel, still others as demon-possessed. The disciples revealed that some saw him as John the Baptist, Ezekiel and a great prophet. But Jesus said to those closest to him, “That’s all well and good. But, how do YOU see me? What is the lens through which you look at life?” The most faithful answered, “We see God at work in you. We see the face of God.”

Can we look at life right now the way the disciples looked at Jesus?

It feels like a stretch.

But I am willing to try.

How about you?

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