When to Fix; When to Enjoy

It is Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting at a picnic table at Riverside Park in Grants Pass. A large canopy is stretched out above me saving me from the 97-degree heat. The Ice Cream truck is parked nearby and I have now heard the same 15-second tune at least fifty times putting me into an unwelcome trance. Dozens of children are playing on the Jungle Jim and running through the fountains as parents and older siblings watch from shady benches nearby. And I am calling this work!

Mobile office
Mobile office at Valley of the Rogue State Park

I am experimenting with a mobile office so that I can connect better with the full reach of the presbytery. It is no secret that arranging time with presbytery staff is a lot easier for the fifty churches that are situated within an hour of the Portland office. Already my experience has been that meetings with church leaders can often be arranged within a couple of weeks for Portland-centric churches. It can take me weeks, if not two or three months, to make the same commitment to those churches two, three, four, and even five or six hours away.

 

But really this blog is not about that. This blog is about why I decided this morning that the schedule I had put together last night before bed suddenly felt like it needed spontaneous rearranging.

I had anticipated committing the bulk of the first part of the day to work—settling in on my early morning spiritual discipline of yoga, meditation and prayer journaling followed by a full morning of catching up on four days of emails that had built up over a long weekend. Then I would commit to the first draft of this week’s Holy Breadcrumbs.

I wanted to get out on my bike late in the afternoon and also didn’t feel that I would be able to ride with a clear conscience and a light heart until I had answered emails, set up future appointments and got a good start on my Holy Breadcrumbs blog. I was going to use the bike ride as a reward for feeling caught up on work responsibilities.

But I made a mistake.

protest

I opened up Facebook (I don’t even remember what drew me there except maybe some addictive habit). A post about Portland’s preparation for potential violence between far right extremists and far left extremists this weekend caught my eye. Ted Wheeler, Portland’s mayor, reassured the public that all 1,000 police officers would be on duty this weekend preparing for the worst.

 

I became nearly emotionally paralyzed. In my efforts to better serve the presbytery I hooked up my camper for a full week connecting with congregations and church leaders in the south. But the news of a potential face off in Portland between far right and far left political forces left me pondering, “What is my role as a church leader in these critical and defining moments of our country?”

  • Am I to wear my clergy stole and collar as a symbol of and a call to peaceful protests?
  • Am I to make sure that I stay close to our Portland churches just in case this potential violence erupts into something larger?
  • Am I to cut short my southern trip so that I can stand with our ecumenical partners who plan to make their public presence known?

My head and heart were spinning. I want to live up to the name of Presbyter for Vision and Mission. I want to go the extra mile to make sure that I connect with all of our congregations—Portland-centric and the other half that are scattered across 65,000 square miles. I want to be a healing, hopeful and peaceful presence in the midst of the growing insanity that is engulfing our communities and our nation.

Mobile office-inside
Inside the mobile “office”

But my self-imposed expectation to be all things visionary was clearly too much and I suddenly found myself changing directions for the day. I left the work sitting on my computer and on my small portable camper table. The bike ride that was going to be the reward for getting my work done at the end of the day suddenly became the thing that I had to do to break out of this emotional paralysis. I just couldn’t think straight.

 

As I took off, my mind immediately went to the texts where Jesus retreated to the mountain, or the other side of the lake, or into the garden to pray. Those texts resonated with me in a way that I had never experienced before. I always appreciated those texts as signs of a healthy spiritual life balancing the need for personal retreat with active engagement. But not until this morning did I understand how retreating can be as much about restoring and saving our sanity in the midst of a growing craziness. This was not about balance. This was about emotional survival. I simply could not take any more information in.

I am starting to understand what real faith is. For the first time I feel like I know what the psalmists meant when they said, “We put our hope in the Lord. (Psalm 33)” It’s hard to find hope in a political culture that is increasingly at war with itself. It’s hard to find hope in our own structures, our own laws, and our own common agreements as they seem to no longer be able to contain our behavior. And it’s hard to find hope in my own abilities as the sheer volume of things that just aren’t right leaves me spinning and running for cover.

Biking Rogue
Biking in the hills of the Rogue River Valley

So this morning I make a quick, spontaneous and utterly good decision.  I went to the garden to pray. I turned the pedals for twenty miles and let the air caress my body and my soul. My eyes followed prayerfully as a flock of geese flew just overhead next to a gurgling creek paralleling a farmer’s hayfield. I replaced thoughts of protests and violence with the sheer enjoyment of a body in rhythmic motion. I breathed in and out relishing the simple life-giving presence of oxygen. I let my soul sing and my spirit soar.

 

Rather than focusing on fixing what was wrong with the world I spent a couple of hours bathing in the world’s goodness.

I don’t think it needs to be an either/or proposition. We just need to know when it’s time to fix the world and when it’s time to just enjoy it.

This morning I enjoyed. This afternoon I am making an attempt at fixing.

It reminds me of the Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

This faith thing is starting to feel awfully real.

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

This is my body broken…

“I’m done.”

Those were the words from one of my colleagues in another presbytery as she reacted honestly from the gut to the horrific weekend of mass murders in El Paso and Dayton.

thoughts and prayersI immediately resonated with her. “I’m done. I’m done. I’m done,” I repeated over to myself as if I was meditating on some newfound mantra. I could not even mouth the usual words, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” They were stuck, hiding somewhere as if it weren’t safe to show their face. No longer did those words feel sympathetic as if I was joining my heart with the aching hearts of sisters and brothers, parents and children. They had an almost cruel sound to them as if I should expect a “F— you” or an angry middle finger salute for even uttering them.

“I’m done,” I said to myself repeatedly.

My heart is no longer big enough to contain this much grief. I can’t find any more room for mere empathy and understanding. My soul has no more room for this level of heartache and pain. I can’t even feel sympathy. As much as I care for the victims and their families I seem to care more for myself. Don’t ask me to repeat this ritual of thoughts and prayers again tomorrow or next week or next month. I can’t do it. My heart is not big enough for that. I cannot care for this weekend’s victims and also have enough compassion left over to be ready for next weekend’s victims.

BulletsThis has to end. This has to end because it is killing our American soul. This has to end because it is tearing us apart. This has to end because no society can survive with her people simply waiting and wondering when it will be their turn. This has to end because I don’t have the capacity for that much grief and that much pain and that much trauma. My body and my psyche simply will not allow it.

So I’m done. I am done making promises from a safe distance to keep people in my thoughts and prayers as they bury their dead. I am done promising that a few moments will be kept sacred on Sunday to pray for the dead, the injured, and the traumatized communities. I am done keeping a template handy where all I have to do is insert a different date, a different number, different names and a different community into my prayers for the people.

I don’t know where you are at. Maybe you were done months before me and for that I applaud you. Maybe you still have it in you to offer your thoughts and prayers while hoping that someone–a legislator, a politician, a religious authority, or even God’s own self will do something to stop the insanity.

But I no longer believe thoughts and prayers are enough. In fact, without action the words sound hollow and even cruel. This is not going to stop. Some predict it will only escalate as would-be murderers plan to outdo each other like athletes pushing to break the next record.

Immigrant protestI write this to you because if you too cannot utter the words “thoughts and prayers” without feeling sick to your stomach and without tearing up I am ready to join with you. I will help you organize. I will promote your efforts at conversation and advocacy and protest. I will draw us together as one community uniting as one powerful voice pushing against this murderous tide. I will support efforts at having a presbytery public witness. I will do anything I can do to end this insanity.

Goddammit, I want to feel normal again.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do still pray for our nation. I do still ache for victims and families and best friends. I do still feel terribly awful and broken up by the ripping of flesh, the tearing of families and the trauma of communities.

But I am already thinking of next week’s mass murder. And I don’t have it in me to start pre-planning for another round of thoughts and prayers. That will not stop the bullets.

I’m done with thoughts and prayers. Bodies are being sacrificed for the cause of hatred. Now it will take some of us, the faithful, sacrificing our bodies for love.

“This is my body broken for you. Do this, do what you have to do, in remembrance of me.”

Thanks for the education, but I need a home!

Did you know that there are still 66 Presbyterian-affiliated colleges and universities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico?

C of I
The College of Idaho, one of our Presbyterian-affiliated colleges and my alma mater.

At one time in our history higher education was one of the highest, if not the highest, commitment to mission that we had. It’s astounding to think about the broad vision, the denominational momentum, and the deep financial investment that it took to create colleges all across the country. It’s refreshing to think of a time when a single mission focus seemed to capture the hearts, imaginations and faith of Christians across the country and from every theological corner.

I doubt that we will have a similar resurgence of commitment to higher education that shows up in the development of dozens of campuses and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. That was a good story for its time. But I do wonder if we are witnessing a similar phenomenon unfolding among us.

If higher education was the mission focus of the 19th and 20th centuries might affordable housing be the focus that is appearing before us in the 21st century?

I have been clear that I believe much of the future vision of this presbytery will be based not on some far-reaching ambitious plan, but on following the energy of people and congregations in our own presbytery. And this is one of those areas where there is growing energy, enthusiasm, passion and commitment.

I am sure that I have not discovered all the quiet corners in our presbytery where addressing affordable housing has become a major mission focus for our congregations. But these are the ones I do know about. I want to hear about the ones I have missed as well. Give me a chance to tell your story!

  • First Step trailer
    First Step trailer, Church of the Siuslaw, Florence

    Church of the Siuslaw, Florence—taking the lead in a community partnership called First Step. As part of the pilot for this project two units are located on Church of the Siuslaw property and a separate property has been purchased to expand the program to many more units (read article here).

  • First Presbyterian, Astoria—congregation members have purchased a building in downtown Astoria to ease the need for low-cost housing for workers who cannot afford housing in the coastal town (read article here).
  • First Presbyterian, Portland—the long-standing Julia West House is being considered for redevelopment as affordable housing and supportive services in downtown Portland.
  • Central Presbyterian—played a leading role in the development of Opportunity Village, a tiny house community for the homeless and partner with Square One Villages, where former Central Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Lorne Bostwick, serves as the board president.
  • Cottage Grove house
    The first of thirteen tiny houses at Cottage Village, Cottage Grove

    First Presbyterian, Cottage Grove—took the lead with Square One Villages in the development of the Cottage Village Coalition for the development of a 1.2 acre tiny homes community for 13 homes. The Cottage Village Coalition received a $100,000 Birthday Offering grant from the Presbyterian Women.

  • New Ministries Team—The Presbytery Leadership Commission has endorsed the plans of the New Ministries Team to partner with the Leaven Community Land and Housing Coalition for the potential development of the nine-acre former Cooper Mountain property into affordable housing and community space (note: final plans would have to receive presbytery approval).

Do you have vacant property that could be developed into affordable or transitional housing?

Do you have the vision to develop affordable housing in your community?

Do you have an unused building or church space that could be converted into temporary or transitional housing?

Are you looking for a mission where you can feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, and renew hope for the working poor?

There are people and churches in our presbytery who are taking the lead on what has become one of America’s most disturbing crises—the lack of affordable housing for the homeless, the working poor and even many middle class families.

At one time Presbyterians took the lead on building institutions of higher education. It is one of our great legacies. I wonder if God is calling us to something new. I wonder if affordable housing is our next big adventure in mission.

The energy in the presbytery tells me it just might be so.

You Just Have to See This!

Adaptive Change in Eight Minutes!

You just have to watch this video of a young man trying to ride a bike that has had only one simple change—when you turn the handlebars to the right the wheels turn to the left and vice versa. You can find it here at The Backwards Brain Bicycle (click here to view).

How long did it take him to digest this knowledge? Less than a few seconds. Understanding what the welders had done took no time at all.

backwards brain bikeHow long did it take him to understand the change? Are you ready for this? It took him a full eight months until he could successfully ride a bike where the steering assumptions had been reversed. Interestingly enough, he also tried this on his 6-year old son who, because of his childhood brain elasticity, was able to accomplish the same feat in two weeks. Eight months for dear old dad who had been riding for 25 years and two weeks for his youngster who had three years of cycling experience.

I am not going to say much more about this. I really want you to just watch the video and then either think about it yourself or, better yet, have a discussion with others using the following questions:

  • In what ways has making changes in your church felt like riding a Backwards Brain Bicycle?
  • destin sandlinDestin Sandlin says, “My thinking was in a rut.” In what ways might your thinking about how to be church be in a rut as well?
  • Destin Sandlin says, “Once you have a rigid way of thinking in your head sometimes you cannot change that even if you want to.”
    • Is this true?
    • In what ways is it true?
    • In what ways might it not be true?
    • What role does the Holy Spirit play in change?
  • Destin Sandlin says, “I had set out to prove that I could free my brain from a cognitive bias, but at this point I am pretty sure that all I proved was that I could only re-designate that bias.” If it is true that we cannot free ourselves from biases then what biases do you want your church to adopt?
  • Destin Sandlin says he learned three things from this experiment:
    • “I learned that welders are often smarter than engineers.” Who are the welders in your congregation?
    • rubiks cube“I learned that knowledge does not equal understanding.” Knowledge of the “backwards brain bicycle” took Destin a few seconds to get. Understanding of the bicycle took him eight months. What does this mean for how your church will respond to the scripture, “In Christ, the old has passed away; behold, the new has come!”
      • What is the difference between knowledge and understanding?
      • What is the process of going from knowledge to understanding?
    • “I learned that truth is truth no matter what you think about it. So be careful how you interpret things because you’re looking at the world with a bias whether you think you are or not.” What are the biases that you can’t even see yet? (Okay, I admit it—that is a trick question!)

Church consultants tell us that mainline Protestant Christianity is in an “adaptive change” climate where the old tools no longer work. We need new assumptions and new biases. This video is the best example I have seen of what “adaptive change” actually looks like and how it works (and how hard it is!).

From now on I am not going to try to explain adaptive change. I am just going to say, “Can you and your church ride a backwards brain bicycle?”

If you can, you are way ahead of the curve!

Holy Spirit: Modern Translation

I love it when a trusted friend reminds me of something that I already knew, but had forgotten in the midst of competing agendas, stressors, and “trying to be all things to all people.”

running weightsIt happened this past week. I was talking with a friend about the sense of responsibility I feel in this position and looking for some understanding and maybe even a little advice. I explained to her that there were parts of this position that took almost no effort at all. They fit my natural energies, passions and inclinations. I also admitted that there were parts that felt like I was running a race with 20-pound weights on my shoes. I could do them, but the emotional effort that they required seemed out of proportion to the tasks themselves.

My friend, who knows me pretty well, said, “I don’t know if you want advice, but I am going to give it anyway. I think you need to follow your energy.”

I smiled immediately and almost laughed to myself as she was reminding me of the advice that I have typically given to our churches. “Follow the energy” has been my broken-record repetitive motto for years. For churches and organizations that are asking questions about revitalization and new life I have said over and over again, “Follow the energy.”

I have come to believe this modern proverb is just a more contemporary way of saying, “Trust the Holy Spirit.”

windThis is way too simplified, but I feel like I trust God with the grand unfolding of history and the universe. I trust Jesus to be my moral compass and the ground of my soul. The Holy Spirit is in another category, a category that is more intuitive than rational. I trust the Holy Spirit when the way isn’t exactly clear and I have to listen more to my body and more to the direction of the wind than anything else. In other words, looking for and following energy more than anything else.

I remember how this played out at Eastminster Church (read story here) in NE Portland a few years ago. We all knew that Eastminster was dangerously close to closing and, therefore, gave us permission to experiment and not worry too much about success and failure.

From the very beginning, I reinforced that our experimenting and our programming should be heavily based on “following the energy” and trusting the Spirit to guide our decisions and commitments. Decisions came easily. If an idea had no energy behind it or for it we simply let it drop. If an idea spurred specific people into action we adopted it.

Not everything we adopted became successful. But everything we did adopt taught us something about ourselves and about our community. We were moving toward something even in failure. The motto “follow the energy” helped us to be honest about ourselves. We were able to acknowledge our gifts and our limitations. Eventually we noticed that there was more energy and resources in the community for our mission than there was actual energy in the congregation.

I reinforced again that it was still important to follow the energy. It was a nervous moment.

  • “What would it mean to take advantage of the energy in the community and lose our grip on the reins of controlling our mission?”
  • “Would the church have to change?”
  • “Would we feel like we were losing our church to an outside group?”

eastminster gardenDespite the anxiety the church stepped forward and invited those who had energy for our mission to shape the ministry of the church. Nine months later Eastminster was host to a 60-bed family homeless shelter serving the community during the six coldest months in partnership with Human Solutions. Nine months after that a 100-plot, ¾ acre community garden in partnership with Grow Portland was opened for the largely immigrant population of East Portland.

I write this because when I first arrived the congregation still dreamed of filling their four empty classrooms with Sunday school children again. At first there was some energy in the congregation to jump start that. But after a year it was clear that there was little energy in the community for Sunday school at this site.

Trusting the Holy Spirit and following the energy the congregation soon discovered that there was great energy in the community to commit to Matthew 25-like ministries—feeding those who are hungry (community garden) and welcoming the stranger (homeless shelter). The community and the church shared a common mission.

Eastminster could have never pulled this off by themselves. Quite simply there was not enough energy in the aging congregation of 35 members. But rather than beat themselves up for the lack of energy among themselves they looked at their mission and then asked the question, “Who has the energy to carry out Christ’s mission in our neighborhood?” It only took a few phone calls and a couple of lunch dates to find out and Eastminster almost couldn’t keep up with the pace of progress once the community was invited in to help shape their ministry.

EPC garden
Eastminster Community Garden

Eastminster did eventually close, but the homeless shelter remained for four years before outgrowing the space. The community garden has now expanded to include an orchard and honeybees. And most of the original Eastminster members still worship there as part of the Parkrose United Church of Christ (who, by the way, had the energy to continue the mission initiated by Eastminster!).

I do realize that there are some things that feel like you are dragging 20-pound weights on your feet and you still have do them anyway. Not everything in life is easy and fun. But anytime we can work with the energy rather than against it we make room for the Holy Spirit to show up and do her thing!

I still marvel at the short nine months that it took Eastminster to go from asking the question, “Who has the energy in the community for our mission” to the opening of a 60-bed family homeless shelter in their church building and the follow up construction of the community garden.

I had be reminded this week personally to worry less about meeting all the expectations of the job and to focus more on those things that personally energize me. It was something I taught and learned while serving as pastor at Eastminster.

I will use my little lesson as a reminder to you as well.

Follow the energy.

Do what you love.

Trust the Holy Spirit.

Let God handle the rest.

In honor of the legacy of Eastminster Presbyterian Church

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

Finding Our “Political” Voice

“Oh boy! Where is Brian going with this topic,” I can hear the whispers in your head already forming. I know this is a sensitive topic and can be controversial in the church. I also know that a Christianity that remains silent in the face of injustice and inhumane policies is not a Christianity that I am willing to talk to my friends about.

Voter registrationYou need to understand that I partly came to religion through politics. Before I entered college I took a one-year break from school in order to grow up a little. During that gap year I worked as a saw man for a mobile home factory, but I also was a precinct coordinator for Bill Armstrong, who was running for the U.S. Senate from Colorado.

I still remember the day I stripped down out of my factory clothing with paint and sawdust covering every inch of my clothing and donned a three-piece suit as I accompanied Mr. Armstrong to a fundraiser. There I ate food that I couldn’t even pronounce and sat mesmerized as then California governor, Ronald Reagan, offered the keynote. I felt pretty special that day as this 19 year-old stood just feet from Governor Reagan in a separate room as the press shoved their microphones and their bright lights into his face and pelted him with questions.

Political valuesA few months later I was enrolled in college with a declared major in political science. I wanted to follow Bill Armstrong into the world of politics. I loved this arena where we were asking questions like, “What is the role that government should play in people’s lives?” “What are the values that guide and govern our common life?” “How do we make our society fair to everyone?” “What is the line between individual rights and the public good?”

Strangely enough, I was also taking religion courses alongside my courses in political science. I soon discovered that religion and politics were not all that different. They were asking essentially the same questions. The only difference was that our political answers were grounded in a broader political, sociological and ideological framework, whereas our religious answers were grounded in a sacred narrative about God’s activity in the world.

As I entered my second year of studies I shifted my major to religious studies and abandoned my pursuit of a political science degree. Some might have thought that it was a major shift, but for me it was simply a decision to continue my study of human nature and social structures, but to ground those studies in a spiritual narrative reflecting God’s hope for humanity.

Senate chambersThe word political comes from the Greek root polis which is the word that points to the philosophy of how the city/state is organized, governed and ordered. It is the word that assumes such questions as “How ought we to relate to each other economically, socially and politically?” “What are the values and laws that guide and govern how we treat each other?” “What are the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship and belonging?”

I have titled this blog “Finding Our Political Voice” not because I want to see the presbytery and our churches suddenly insert themselves into our increasingly polarized political debates. And not because I want us to follow those in the religious community who have wedded themselves to one political party or another. No, I have titled this blog “Finding Our Political Voice” just as a reminder that religious questions and religious values almost always have political ramifications. Politics and religion have always been first cousins and it is impossible to completely separate them from each other.

border fenceWe cannot proclaim from the pulpit that we have a Christian obligation to “welcome the stranger” and not also at the same time make a statement about what is happening to the “strangers” on our southern border.

We cannot teach that our religion calls for us to “love kindness”(Micah 6: 8)  and at the same time not hear it as a word of judgment on those who use cruel and derisive comments to dehumanize others and manipulate them.

We cannot reinforce that our most essential ministries are to reach out “to the least of these” (Matt. 25) and at the same time have nothing to say about policies that discriminate against women, LGBTQIA persons, minorities, and the economically vulnerable.

Quite honestly I could have titled this blog, “Finding Our Religious Voice” and made the same point. The world of religion and politics ask almost the exact same questions. The only difference is the narrative that we point to get our answers.

But make no mistake. Religious statements have political implications by their very nature.

Jesus didn’t say, “Love the person sitting next to you in the pew.” He said, “Love your neighbor.”

And that is as much a political statement as a religious one.

 

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

From Lab to Playground!

For weeks I was looking for just the right metaphor to attach to our presbytery’s commitment to a period of innovation. At the Presbytery Leadership Commission (PLC) I suggested maybe “Innovation Explosion” or “A Season of Innovation.” Explosion just made everyone laugh and I took some well-deserved teasing. A Season made it sound a little too temporary. In the end, the PLC endorsed my commitment to encouraging innovation in the presbytery during this next 2019-20 period and left it up to me to find the right metaphor.

That was a mistake!

LaboratoryThe best I could come up with was Innovation Lab. I liked the lab idea intellectually. It communicated the experimental nature of innovation and it fit the reputation that the Pacific Northwest is getting as being pioneers in the world of shifting religious and spiritual identities. But, I have to admit, it still felt awkward and clunky. It had a sort of lifeless, clinical spirit to it.

But it was the best I could come up with. I was prepared to sell my product at this past weekend’s presbytery meeting in Ashland. Innovation Lab was on the slide and my notes were written in a way to try to make it sound more interesting and attractive than it really was.

I only had to wait for the trials of ordination of one Morgan Schmidt of First, Bend to conclude. I delightfully watched Morgan share her statement of faith and then playfully and thoughtfully answer the questions from the floor of the presbytery. Then this young millennial said it. I don’t remember the exact context, but it was something along the lines of seeing the world as a playground for God’s activity.

Boom!

Playground was the word I was looking for. I was so convinced of it that I stood up five minutes later during my report and said on the spot, “I am almost for sure going to change Innovation Lab to Innovation Playground.” I exclaimed that I had been trying to find the right word for weeks and never landed on anything that made my heart sing. Playground did it immediately. It had life to it!

Fun lipsI especially like this word because it took me back to that day in September, 2017 when I stood before the presbytery for the vote on my candidacy for this position. During my comments to the presbytery I reminded us that we had a number of challenges to face, but that because we could trust God with our future, we had the permission to have some fun. And then the job started and I couldn’t find room to just be playful and have fun!

On my way back from the presbytery meeting I was listening to the TED Radio Hour in a program titled, “Where Joy Hides.” The first featured speaker was another millennial, Simone Giertz, “inventor of useless things.” Simone was an especially bright student in high school, but she also suffered from intense performance anxiety. Here is how she describes her attempt to be successful without the pressure of performance anxiety:

I got interested in building robots, and I wanted to teach myself about hardware. But building things with hardware, especially if you’re teaching yourself, is something that’s really difficult to do. It has a high likelihood of failure and moreover, it has a high likelihood of making you feel stupid. And that was my biggest fear at the time. So I came up with a setup that would guarantee success 100 percent of the time. With my setup, it would be nearly impossible to fail. And that was that instead of trying to succeed, I was going to try to build things that would fail. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, building stupid things was actually quite smart, because as I kept on learning about hardware, for the first time in my life, I did not have to deal with my performance anxiety. And as soon as I removed all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm, and it allowed me to just play.

playgroundWhat comes next is even more important. As she learned how to just play without the pressure of trying to succeed her enthusiasm for creating useless things rubbed off on other people. Thousands of people started watching her YouTube videos (now almost two million followers) and eventually she created a job for herself inventing useless things like a Toothbrush Helmet, sharing them on the internet, and creating a steady stream of income. Again, in her own words:

So as much as my machines can seem like simple engineering slapstick, I realize that I stumbled on something bigger than that. It’s this expression of joy and humility that often gets lost in engineering, and for me it was a way to learn about hardware without having my performance anxiety get in the way. I often get asked if I think I’m ever going to build something useful, and maybe someday I will.

But the way I see it, I already have because I’ve built myself this job and…it’s something that I could never have planned for. Instead it happened just because I was enthusiastic about what I was doing, and I was sharing that enthusiasm with other people. To me that’s the true beauty of making useless things, because it’s this acknowledgment that you don’t always know what the best answer is. And it turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. And maybe a toothbrush helmet isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question.

bubblesThe Presbytery Leadership Commission has endorsed my recommendation (vetted through the Dream Team) to focus on innovation and creativity at least through 2020. With the timely help of soon-to-be-ordained, Morgan Schmidt, I am going to call this initiative the Innovation Playground!

It’s time to play, create, and invent.

It’s time to have fun.

It’s time to worry less about success and more about that which we can get excited and enthusiastic about.

Remember, “On the seventh day God created recess!”

Vision from the Seat of a Kayak

As many of you know, I am a bit of an outdoor adventurer. Over the last decade and a half I have embarked on a number of multi-week cycling pilgrimages covering large swaths of territory in the West, across parts of Europe, the Middle East and even an overly ambitious trek up to the base of Mt. Everest on my two spoked wheels.

kayakI am pretty sure my next big purchase is going to be a kayak. How I lasted seventeen years living next to our spectacular Oregon rivers and bays without buying a kayak is a mystery to me! I am not an expert at kayaking, but I have become quite the expert at over-working a metaphor. And I have decided that river kayaking is the right metaphor for how I am exercising leadership in the presbytery at this time.

I was pondering this with a good friend recently as I was trying to make my way through the Mt. Everest-sized expectations I sometimes feel in this position. I was talking about how much of my work is to personally stay grounded. He smiled at me and said, “That’s odd. You are a man in constant motion. Are you sure ‘grounded’ is the right word?”

kayak in canyonThat’s when the metaphor of the kayak came to me. I realized I needed a better metaphor that fit a person and a presbytery that is constantly changing, in motion, evolving and transforming. We don’t need to be grounded like an airplane that is going nowhere; we need to be centered and balanced like a kayak that is riding the waves and following the currents of the Holy Spirit!

Here is are some thoughts that the kayak metaphor sparked about what it means to lead, guide, and serve our presbytery in this particularly Pentecostal, Holy Spirited moment:

  • I am glad to take us down the river, but I will not respond to overtures to turn our kayaks around and battle to defy the currents by paddling frantically upstream. That is an invitation to exhaustion and failure;
  • I will gladly spend as much time as is needed to help us understand the direction of the river, the currents, the dangers, the opportunities and the resources needed to successfully navigate a Class 4 whitewater experience;
  • Kayaking is not about just letting the water take you where it will; kayaking is about using the force of the water to propel you downstream and using the oars to navigate around dangers and find the best line through rough waters;
  • A kayaker assumes that she can’t change the course of the river; she can only change the course of the kayak;
  • Expert kayakers talk like religious mystics—kayaking is a river dance where one’s body, boat and water are all flowing in a sacred rhythm;
  • It’s always better to plan a course of action before the rapids than it is to freak out in the midst of the rapids;
  • Big kayaks are less impacted by individual waves in a river; small kayaks are more responsive and maneuverable.
  • Kayaking back up a river is a whole heck of a lot of work, but leads to a known destination; kayaking down the river leads to an unknown destination, but is a whole heck of a lot more fun!

I am glad to be part of this adventure with you!

 

 

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.