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

Holy Breadcrumbs 2.0

I am heading back to Scripture.

Pedal PilgrimFor those of you who know my writing history, you might find this a bit of a surprise. Before taking this presbytery position, I had a regular blog under the title PedalPilgrim. My readers were almost evenly divided between people who regularly attended church and those who considered themselves some form of “spiritual, but not religious” or agnostic. I had found a voice that seemed to speak equally to those outside of the church as well as those inside the church.

But I was in a unique position during that period. As an interim minister, I was able to tell my congregations that they were getting me less for the beliefs that I held and more for the experience I brought to their unique situation. I spoke to the congregation from the pulpit and to the larger community in my blog.

Now my readership is mostly faithful Presbyterians, although not exclusively. If I had a 50/50 split four years ago, I would guess that I now have something closer to a 90/10 split—nine religiously faithful to every one “non-religious” person.

LabyrinthSo I make this move “back to Scripture” with some reservation. I have always cherished my ability to share my spiritual values with people beyond the church. I know those folks well enough to know that a “return to Scripture” may be a step too far in holding their interest or in trusting my voice. That grieves me. In a denomination that has seen consistent declines for over five decades, connecting with people beyond the church walls seems like a no-brainer.

I am returning to Scripture, nonetheless.  I am hoping that both my church readers and non-religious readers will join me. I think what I am experiencing still speaks to both communities.

In recent months, I have found myself increasingly disoriented. I spent the first three years of this position feeling clear-headed about where the presbytery needed to go. I had a narrative in my head and a vision that I carried in my heart. Every week as I have written I have done so feeling deeply confident about where I was taking the presbytery.

But somewhere in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, a charged political environment, civil unrest, wildfires, international crises and my own personal losses, I lost my ability to be smugly confident about where the presbytery should go.

I still know how to get there. I am just less sure of where there is.

And so I am returning to Scripture. Most of my professional ministry was as a solo pastor where I was privileged to preach on a weekly basis. I loved the rhythm of weekly preaching. Generally, I would read Scripture five to six weeks in advance and then focus exclusively on one scripture for the Sunday ahead. As soon as I said “Amen” at the end of one sermon, my mind immediately shifted to the scripture for the next sermon. I loved having a certain scripture text tag along with me each day.

Bible on roadI loved the way it grounded my week. I cherished the way it gave me a spiritual lens through which to view the events of the world. I loved how it informed the chance meeting with the person at the store, the couple I was counseling, and the issues I was wrestling with. I delighted in the way the scripture leapt to life not because of what was written, but because of the way it intersected with my world.

I shared months ago that this Holy Breadcrumbs blog was going through a transformation. Something was ending, but a new beginning had not quite shown its face. Next week will represent the beginning of another stage of my writing for the presbytery—a shift from writing my way toward a vision that was in my head and heart to letting Scripture speak to us, walk with us and guide us in these coming months.

I am needing this. I am guessing you need something to ground you too. These past eighteen months have been incredibly disorienting and disturbing. I am no longer confident that I have the answers for the presbytery or even for myself. What I am confident about is that the answers lie somewhere in that dynamic space where scripture and life speak to each other.

Holy Breadcrumbs has not gone away. But it is changing. It is transforming. It used to be grounded in a vision that I held in my head and heart. Now it will be grounded in scripture. Now it will be grounded in that sacred space where God’s story meets our story.

Thank you for taking this journey with me.

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

“We Can Do That!”

“We can do that!”

Those were the words of Jeanne Schulz, an elder at Peace Presbyterian Church in Eugene, from a tour of Emerald Village five years ago. Jeanne was referring to a Presbyterian Women gathering that was organized around visiting the site where a 22-unit tiny house development was in process on 1.1 acres in Eugene. Jeanne said that the awareness that their congregation was aging coupled with nearly two acres of developable church property led her and her group to spontaneously blurt out, “We can do that!”

Five years later, what was an initial spontaneous fleeting and far flung idea is now becoming a reality.

Emerald villageSquare One Villages, the non-profit organization responsible for Emerald Village in Eugene and Cottage Village in Cottage Grove (see “It Only Takes a Spark“), is set to develop Peace Village Co-op, a 72-unit affordable housing community for very low-income residents.

This past weekend I worshiped with Peace Presbyterian Church outside on a cool Sunday morning and talked to them about how they made the significant decision to sell their property to Square One Villages for this development. What I discovered is that the decision didn’t happen overnight and that it came as a result of being intentional about the church’s legacy.

Peace #8
Hank’s Conestoga hut home

While the idea to sell their property to develop it for affordable housing is a monumental step, it’s not outside the spiritual DNA of the church’s mission. Currently, in partnership with the city of Eugene they provide space for five Conestoga huts to transition people off the street. I talked with Hank who had lived in his car for six years. He expressed how grateful he was to have a place to settle for a few months while preparing to transition into an apartment next year.

The church remodeled one bathroom adding a shower and turned a former nursery into a small pantry and kitchen for the residents living on their property. Serving the vulnerable and low income is not new to Peace, but going from five Conestoga huts to 72 housing units is a monumental leap of faith.

I asked both the clerk of session and the pastor if they had a message for other churches and they repeated nearly the same advice. Tom Wyatt, Peace’s clerk of session said, “Think about your legacy.” Pastor Glenn Edwards then chimed in and said, “Yes, and I would add that you really need to take control of your legacy.” Both said the key was shifting from a focus on surviving to primarily focusing on their mission and the legacy the church would leave should they eventually dissolve as a congregation.

There was a definitely a theme to my visit. Jeanne Schulz said that the big decision first started from that spontaneous “aha” moment five years before when they visited the proposed site for Emerald Village. But there were dozens of conversations along the way including speaking with city officials, presbytery staff and trustees, and the ongoing Session and congregational discernment.

Peace #10
Pastor Glenn Edwards preaching

Pastor Edwards said that a big key to the success of this project was recognizing that a legacy of this magnitude can’t be done overnight or in order to avoid a looming crisis. It takes forethought, planning, time and a season of discernment and prayer. He added, reflecting on what the pandemic is teaching us, “You don’t want to get to the place of trying a vaccine when you are on the verge of dying.” I nodded in agreement. Legacy work takes time, but many churches wait until it’s too late.

In Pastor Edwards’ sermon on Sunday he said the congregation focused on three primary questions as they faced the uncertainty of their future. Their decision was the result of a long multi-year process of discernment on these three questions:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. What is God calling us to do?

From the place where I sit Peace Presbyterian Church is a model of creative faithfulness. While the decision was painful, the church found a way to leave a deep and lasting legacy in their community AND continue as a congregation. The congregation is selling their full property to Square One Villages for less than market value in exchange for a $1/year 25-year lease to continue to use the church buildings.

Peace Village
Peace Village Co-op

Many of our churches are afraid of the potential of closing. Many others don’t like the language of legacy. But the lesson from Peace Presbyterian is that if you start early enough, think about and take control of your legacy, and listen for God’s leading it is possible to both continue as a congregation and invest in a mission that will have a deep impact on the community for decades to come.

Legacy is scary faithful work. But if done right and early enough the impact can be huge.

This is a great story of creative faithfulness.

The headline should read, “A Church of 40 Makes Room for a Village of 72!”

Five years ago, Jeanne Schulz and the women of Peace Church visited the Emerald Village site and said, “We can do that!”

That’s where it starts.

After that all you need is time and trust.

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

Jesus Meets Maslow

This past weekend I preached at Plymouth Presbyterian Church in St. Helens. It’s a little too late to use my sermon as a stand in for your services since I preached on the lectionary and that week has passed. But one of the stories that I told in the sermon seemed timely to share with the presbytery right now (You can hear the sermon here–Audio “The Daily Show”.).

I was preaching from John 6: 24-35 and focusing mostly on Jesus’ chiding of the crowd for running after him for the purposes of getting more bread. He used the occasion to remind them that the material things of life rot and perish, but that the spiritual things of life are eternal. Essentially, he said, “Don’t be chasing after literal bread; seek me, the ‘bread of life.’”

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, scalable vector illustration

Anyone who knows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will know that Maslow’s theory posits that one cannot seek spiritual things until one’s physical needs are met. In his theory, psychological development is like a five-layer cake with our most basic needs at the bottom and our higher, more spiritual needs at the top. The hierarchy appears in the accompanying picture.

When I first read the scripture lesson I thought that, if Maslow and Jesus had met, they would have had a healthy argument. Maslow would have advocated for not pushing spiritual development on the crowd until they actually got the bread they were seeking. Jesus would have countered, “Isn’t life more than bread? Why should a person put off spiritual maturity just because they don’t have bread?”

Or, at least, so I thought.

crowdThen I looked at the story more carefully. Jesus was not talking to people who didn’t know where their next meal would come from. He was talking to a group of people who had gathered on a hillside to hear him teach, and then, because the lecture went on so long, found themselves getting hungry. When they followed him to the other side of the seas that’s when Jesus chided them. “You came to hear me teach, but you followed me because you wanted more snacks.”

This is when I realized the text was not about bread itself; it was about trust.

That’s when a personal story shot to the forefront of my brain. I realized that I had an experience that reconciled Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with Jesus’ spiritual admonishments. The two were probably more in agreement than I had first surmised.

alone book coverTen years ago, I took off on a cycling pilgrimage that is captured in my book “Alone: A 4,000 Mile Search for Belonging.” If Maslow had been along for the ride he would have said that the purpose of my ride was to create enough space in my life to reflect on stages 3, 4 and 5 of his hierarchy—love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. I had experienced a spate of losses and I desperately needed an experience where I could reflect on where I had been and where I was supposed to go next. My needs were not about food, but about my deepest purpose in life.

One thing I remember very clearly about the ride is this. As I took off my greatest worry and source of anxiety was wondering where I would sleep each night. The thing about cycling pilgrimages is that you don’t know day to day how far you will be able to ride. One day you expect to ride 80 miles but you wake up feeling heavy and out-of-sorts and the miles just aren’t in your legs. Another day you are riding along well when a massive thunderstorm cuts your day short. And then there are the days when a tailwind pushes you through one town and into another far exceeding your morning expectations.

In order to quell my initial anxiety I had made arrangements for the first two nights of this nine to ten-week trip. I stayed with fellow cyclists in Silverton on my first night and then reserved a campsite at Detroit Lake for my second night. After that I had to hope and keep my fingers crossed that I would have a place to sleep as my days ended.

Quite honestly, despite the fact that I was supposed to be reflecting on the higher stages of Maslow’s scale my thoughts were consumed by worries over the lowest stage—food, shelter and warmth.

But this is what actually happened as I crossed the state of Oregon by bike.

  • Night 3: After leaving Detroit Lake, I got caught in a rare summer Cascades rainstorm and needed to find a hotel in Sisters where I could dry out my clothing and gear.
  • Night 4: I camped at Ochoco Lake east of Prineville where my tent poles snapped and I had a barely functional tent.
  • Night 5:  A Presbyterian Church in Dayville let me sleep in their pews and use the kitchen for cooking.
  • Night 6:  I set up my sagging tent behind a restaurant/store at Austin Junction, but during dinner I struck up a conversation with a local couple. The next thing I knew they had invited me to sleep at their place and save me from sleeping in my drooping tent.
  • Night 7: The next night I found a cheap motel in Unity.
  • Night 8: I called some relatives of church members late in the afternoon and joined them for a family BBQ and a nice warm bed in the town of Ontario

None of this was planned. In fact, all of it only came into focus late into the afternoon.

Dayville Presbyterian
Dayville Presbyterian Church

The point is this. At the start of the trip I was like those people in the crowd whom Jesus was admonishing. My thoughts were consumed with shelter, safety and security. What I discovered was that it wasn’t having all ten weeks of my lodging scheduled and secured that allowed me to finally relax and do the real work of the pilgrimage. It was trusting that God or the Universe or the hands of Life would provide a safe and secure place to sleep every night.

I write this because we all know that the church, at its best, focuses on our essential mission to provide gospel hope, to be a healing presence in a broken world, and to advocate for divine justice and true peace. But we sometimes get caught up in thinking that we can’t focus on our higher calling as faith communities until all of our fears about the heating of our buildings, the paying of our staff, the watering of our lawns, and the taking care of our members have been quelled.

Jesus says, “Don’t worry so much about food, but spend your energy on your higher purpose.” Jesus is not advocating that we starve or sleep next to the highway in favor of being spiritual. He is not telling the homeless person to quit obsessing about food and shelter. He is saying to those of us Presbyterians who already have those things, “Move on. You have what you need. You will be fine. Now think about eternal things. Think about your mission in life.”

I think Maslow would approve.

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

Guns and Kayaks

I am my dad’s son.

But given my reaction to my 16th birthday present you might have questioned that. I was a very active teenager spending as much time outdoors as I could—tennis, cycling, skiing, hiking, soccer and swimming. When it came time for my 16th birthday, quite honestly, I was hoping for some expensive ski equipment for my special day. My birthday is in October and new skis or boots would have been the perfect gift just in front of the Thanksgiving opening day on the slopes.

Hunting rifleWhen it came time to receive my gift my dad took me downstairs, opened up a small closet and proudly pulled out a Swiss Army rifle. My eyes must have become like silver dollars. This was a monumental gift from my dad. It was his blessing upon me indicating that I had come of age. My father was bestowing upon me the sign and symbol of a boy who had transitioned into manhood—a high-powered rifle suited for big game such as deer, elk and bear.

It clearly caught me by surprise because I stammered through some form of an incoherent and insincere thanks. It wasn’t just that I really wanted something else and I was disappointed. No. The damn thing scared me! It was then that I knew that my dad’s hopes for me and my hopes for myself were going different directions. His intentions were pure gold. But it felt like I had received a lump of coal.

And yet, I have to say again I am my dad’s son.

Growing up, many a weekend was spent up in the Colorado Rockies fishing, hiking and camping. I was born in Bozeman, Montana near Yellowstone Park and later raised right at the foot of the magnificent Rocky Mountains. Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved highway in the world, was just a quick morning jaunt away. Three times I road my bike over the 12,183-foot pass. I was raised as a mountain boy.

On my 16th birthday, my dad got me right and wrong. He knew me well enough to know that supporting my love affair with nature was just right. But he didn’t know me well enough to know that I wasn’t going to be a perfect replica of him.

Brian KayakingToday, I am still my dad’s son. I am as much of a nature boy as I always have been. It’s just that I traded in fishing, hunting, and camping for cycling, snowshoeing and kayaking. Despite my dad’s early hopes for me, today he takes pride (and some credit) in my outdoor ambitions.

At our Strategic Planning Team meeting last week one of our astute members shared the image of her understanding of good parents as we were reflecting on the future of the church. She reminded us that healthy parenting is not about making sure that our children become exact replicas of us, but that we bestow upon them our most cherished values and then release them to the world to live those values out in their own way.

The comment came as we were wrestling with the increasing demand upon the presbytery to help our churches successfully negotiate the cultural shifts of our communities. We know the form of our churches has to change. Her comment was a reminder that the healthiest churches instill their values in their membership and then release those same members to live those values out in their own unique ways.

Brian BikingI thought about the lesson from my family. My dad instilled in me a love for nature teaching me to fish for Rainbow trout, camping next to mountain lakes, and guiding me toward hunting for big game in the forests. I do almost none of that now. But my love of nature is still written into my DNA. Not a week goes by without taking a walk by a river, cycling on a mountain trail, snowshoeing through a forest, or kayaking in a wildlife refuge.

Sometimes we make the mistake of confusing form for content. We assume that Christian values can only be lived out in church membership, singing in a choir, volunteering at the food pantry, pledging a percentage of income to the church, serving as an elder or deacon, making coffee, trimming trees on church property, and running the sound system on Sunday.

At our best we instill in our memberships the value of compassion, a love of neighbor, a commitment to divine grace and justice, a deep itch for truth-telling, and a devotion to healing self and others. Maybe our members will become exact replicas of our church culture. But if we are lucky they will take those Christian values and live them out in their own unique ways. If we are lucky they won’t abandon the church, but instead become our legacy.

I am my dad’s son. Different in so many ways; yet, essentially the same.

That is how legacy works.

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

It Only Takes a Spark…

This is a story about First Presbyterian Church, Cottage Grove. But, honestly the players involved in this story had become so big and numerous that First Presbyterian almost got lost in the narrative.

Tuesday I made my way down from Portland to Cottage Grove, a small idyllic town less than a half hour south of Eugene. Cottage Grove first got on my radar when I discovered the 16-mile Row River Bike Trail that originates in the town and crosses three covered bridges on the way to Dorena Lake. It’s a lovely ride if you ever want to gather a few pedaling Presbyterians for a Saturday outing.

Cottage Grove 4I was in Cottage Grove for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Cottage Grove Village, a one-acre tiny house development on a quiet neighborhood street on the south side of town. I arrived to the scene of thirteen recently constructed tiny houses and over a hundred people gathered around for speeches, a BBQ and a ribbon cutting.

As I looked at the brochure for the event I expected to see the name of First Presbyterian Church highlighted somewhere prominently between the beautiful pictures of homes and residents. Instead, I found the names of some thirty community partners including various foundations, government entities, corporate names and the organizational umbrella of Square One Villages. But the name of the church was not to be found.

Cottage Grove 3That omission, whether intentional or not, really tells the story of First Presbyterian Church. In fact, except for a few short days or maybe a couple of weeks they never owned this story; they were just the divine spark that ignited the energy and passion of city and county dreamers, doers and developers. Don’t get me wrong. They didn’t light the match and then walk away. No, they lit the match and then kept fanning the flames until the project is what it is today.

The truth is that by the time this project reached ribbon cutting stage there were major partners involved including the Meyer Memorial Trust, the $100,000 gift from the Presbyterian Women, Lane County, AARP, Banner Bank, Ford Family Foundation and more than two dozen other large benefactors and supporters.

What First Presbyterian Church understands and got right is that a mission of this magnitude has to catch fire beyond the local congregation if it’s going to be successful. What they got right from the very beginning was that they communicated to the community that “we are better together.” They invited the community to dream with them and plan with them.

Cottage Grove 1From the spark of an idea with their Earth and Social Justice Committee they ignited the passions of a community that wanted to make a visible impact on the housing crisis in their community. What started out as an idea to have a forum to UNDERSTAND the issues eventually morphed into a project to SOLVE the issues. It would not have happened without the initiative of First, Cottage Grove and it would not have happened without the investment of the community. “We are better together” was their motto.

I know this congregation well enough to know that this was not some new discovery for them. It has long been in the DNA of this congregation to be the initiators for community development. They don’t need to develop trust for community projects. They crossed the trust threshold decades ago. Their community sees them as barrier breakers and depends on them to step in to mend the social fabric of the community.

During our last presbytery meeting, I closed my comments from the Strategic Planning Team with the lyrics to the first verse of one of our favorite hymns:

Called as partners in Christ’s service,

Called to ministries of grace,

We respond with deep commitment

Fresh new lines of faith to trace.

May we learn the art of sharing,

Side by side and friend with friend,

Equal partners in our caring

To fulfil God’s chosen end.

That hymn clearly plays in the hearts of First Church members.

Cottage Grove 2Today, called as partners in Christ service, the Cottage Grove Village has given thirteen vulnerable residents an opportunity to develop some permanency and to restore their dignity. What started out as a single conversation sparked a community-wide development where people feel a sense of belonging again. In the words of new resident, Asslin, “I had lost the ability to have hope. That is what this place gave me. It has given me a new family of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles who are just as crazy as I am. I absolutely love it.” The world needs a little more of her kind of craziness.

“It only takes a spark…”

Then watch out!

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