Watermelon and Herons

Note: Next week we will be on the new platform, “A Pilgrim Diary.” I will explain what this shift is then and why we have gone from Holy Breadcrumbs to A Pilgrim Diary.

Last Holy Breadcrumbs blog

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

That is the answer (with the original patriarchal language) of the First Question of the Shorter Catechism to the Westminster Confession of the PCUSA. I know this because it is the last remaining vestige of the 107 answers I had memorized perfectly 35 years ago to win a contest worth $1,500. I had it good. It used to be that confirmands had to memorize the whole thing, stand in front of a congregation, and be ready to recite two or three answers picked at random just to become a member of a church. No $1,500 prize money for them!

I share this with you because this answer has been showing up in my consciousness more frequently lately. People who know me know that I have a history of working hard for things that matter (the “glorify” part of the answer). I have struggled with creating space for the “enjoyment” side of the equation.

kayak on estacada lake
Kayaking on Estacada Lake

Lately I am focusing more on that simply as a survival tool. I can’t imagine how I would cope with the weight of daily living these days without the promise to myself that every day I will hike, cycle or kayak and pluck away for thirty minutes or so on my guitar. I suppose I can’t quite categorize those activities as pure enjoyment since I am using them as coping mechanisms, but that’s probably as close as this tightly wound dude will get.

But my real reason for sharing this is that a pattern seems to be developing that tells me that this isn’t just about me, but a sign of something that is occurring among all of us.

I want to be careful not to read too much scientific certainty into Facebook likes, but if Facebook could be an indication of the energy of our community then something is definitely happening.

In recent weeks, I have invited us all into an important conversation about trying to find common values in this time of divisiveness and nastiness. There certainly has been some response. Interestingly enough many of the responses reveal a hopelessness, as if the issues are so overwhelming that no one can really see a successful way forward.

Heron
Great Blue Heron on my daily walk on the Clackamas River

At the same time, I have posted on several occasions pure moments of joy and grace in my daily living. A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of a great blue heron perched on an old post in a cove near where I live. This weekend I posted a picture of diving into some cold watermelon about half way through a forty-mile bike ride on one of these muggy hot days we have had recently. Both of those pictures elicited dozens of likes and hearts—nearly ten times the number of responses my “serious and more important” posts get.

Is there a message for me here? Is there a message for all of us?

I remember a few weeks ago when I spoke to the gathering of some 100 plus presbytery delegates at our June meeting. I told them the story of the Native American who was asked by a white observer, “With all that you have been through—displacement, disease and genocide—how do you cope?” The Native American answered, “We sing. When things are tough we sing.”

Watermelon“The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

Things are tough right now. Maybe the way through is not solving our problems, but singing, kayaking, cycling, hiking, knitting, card-playing, snuggling on the couch, taking a bubble bath, eating cold watermelon on a hot day, and laughing with grandchildren and grandparents.

Enjoyment. Could the answer be as simple as that?

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

The Elephant in the Room

A Pilgrim DiaryIt has been an interesting couple of weeks as I initiated this dialogue to find common values and a common language in our community. I have heard from a number of people both in the comments to my blog and personally. One of the reasons that my new blog platform (coming next month) will be called “A Pilgrim Diary” is that I have no idea where this dialogue is going to take us. I have simply promised to follow the threads that emerge, very much like being on a pilgrimage.

Already a significant thread, even an obstacle, has emerged. Even in my invitation to a broad and diverse group of people to join a common table has revealed how much our division has taken root. I spoke of trying to get to the “other side” of the divisive and nasty spirit of our time. The feedback I have received so far could be organized into four basic groups:

  1. “Go for it, Brian. I am behind you.”
  2. “I appreciate your ambition, but I think it’s too late.”
  3. “We need you to name the specific problems so we can work on actual solutions.”
  4. “There is no ‘other side.’ We are just where we need to be right now.”
VBS Lord's Army sign
VBS sign in Clackamas County, Oregon

It is the second one (and by implication, the third one) that I mostly want to address today because this showed up in comments, conversations, emails, and news media over the past two weeks. In one form or another, I heard repeatedly that we may be beyond solutions right now. And, while no one named it specifically, the presence of Christian nationalism and mainline Protestant’s contribution to that seemed to be source of many of the comments and concerns.

I heard that the values of Americans are so out of sync that conversation is now impossible. I heard that the Christian church, despite giving verbal lip service to connecting with the broader community is probably too entrenched to actually do it. I heard shame about being part of a Christian tradition that has a history of genocidal colonialism. I heard grief about a church system that wants to address the growing presence of Christian nationalism, but does not have the energy for the fight.

elephant trunkI invited us all to this dialogue so see if we could find common values and a common language that would bring us all home to each other. But first, I think we have to start with elephant in the room, the one that your comments these past two weeks made obvious:

“What is a faithful response to Christian nationalism and how much have our mainline Protestant traditions contributed to it, given birth to it, and played into it?”

It is clear that this is on the minds of so many. It showed up in conversations and comments these past two weeks. It is increasingly showing up in the media as “something that must be addressed.”

For further research and analysis of the growing presence of Christian nationalism read the following two articles:

John Blake’s analysis (CNN)

https://www.cnn.com/2022/07/24/us/white-christian-nationalism-blake-cec/index.html

The analysis by Kristen Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne

https://kristindumez.substack.com/p/is-white-christian-nationalism-imposter?utm_source=%2Fprofile%2F2162288-kristin-du-mez&utm_medium=reader2

I will be especially interested in your comments and how your comments are similar or dissimilar depending on your relationship to the church. Please give a short description (life-long member, grew up in the church, never been to church, agnostic, etc.) along with your comment so I can track how people react to this depending on your particular orientation.

This is a difficult conversation, but one we must have if we are going to get to the “other side” and come home to each other.

In trust…

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

A Divine Love Affair

Over a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton, an English writer, art critic, philosopher and lay theologian said,

Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”

1500 years before him, St. Augustine said,

To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him, the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.”

Angel's Rest
Angel’s Rest Hike and Sermon

The above quotes are excerpts from the sermon that I preached from the top of Angel’s Rest in the Columbia Gorge for the TV audience of Bend, First Presbyterian this last Sunday. I have said that I believe that the future of the Church will emerge from the dialogue between our rich, historic tradition and the emerging spiritualities of our time. This sermon represents what I consider our best hope to bring those two together–the return of ancient religious mysticism.

Are you secretly a mystic?

Here is the link to the full service with the sermon:

Here is the link to the sermon only: https://bendfp.org/2022/07/jul-17th-a-divine-love-affair-with-rev-brian-heron/

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

A Pilgrim Diary

A Pilgrim Diary. That will be the new blog title and platform soon to be launched. This is part of how I got there.

I had a good conversation with one of our presbytery leaders earlier this week. The conversation confirmed that I am going the right direction with a shift in my blog and the platform I use for my voice. He didn’t know that he was doing that, but both of us were reflecting on the expectations that were in the air when I was first hired as the executive presbyter and the reality now about my style of leadership.

Visionary
Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash

I have heard this from many corners—that we all thought we needed a strong, visionary leader who could create a blueprint for the future that everyone could clearly follow. I never really fully played into that expectation since I accepted this position feeling strongly that we were in pilgrim time and I had the right experience and temperament to act as a guide through a period of ecclesiastical wilderness.

I share this because whatever is next (and it really is weeks away at this point) I am going to take a dive even deeper into a pilgrim leadership style. Quite honestly, I thought that I would be able to lead with a pilgrim approach for the first few years until it spit us out into a more normal long-range planning, future visioning process. But the pandemic changed all that.

Wilderness
Photo by Brandon Hoogenboom on Unsplash

I quite believe that whatever time I have left in my career and, for that matter, my life, will be dedicated to pilgrimage time. Maybe for the first time in our lives the story of the escaped Hebrew slaves wandering in the wilderness for forty years is just as much our story as theirs. I have always preached that story metaphorically; I think it’s time to preach it literally.

I know this sounds scary and overwhelming. But I do have experience in this. Ten years ago, as I embarked on a personal pilgrimage of 4,000 cycling miles I ran into the Nevada desert. For four or five days, I contemplated taking a Greyhound bus over that 450-mile stretch. It unnerved me, scared me, overwhelmed me, and, quite honestly, put a sort of visceral terror into my flesh. In the end, however, I decided to do it. To not do it felt a bit like cheating.

Bike on hwy 50
Crossing the Nevada desert, 2011

I am so glad that I made that decision. Of the whole ten-week pilgrimage the desert was my favorite experience. It has always been hard to describe that experience, but this is as close as I have come. The desert presented me with a theological paradox. On the one hand, I felt completely insignificant as I knew the desert could swallow me up with one small mistake or misjudgment. My body and life didn’t matter one whit to the desert. On the other hand, it was so barren that I knew that it was just me and God out there having a conversation. No distractions. No other agendas. No responsibilities.

How does one describe an experience where you feel that you don’t matter at all and that you are the only thing that matters. My heart still jumps when I think of that profound paradoxical experience.

My friends, we are in wilderness time. We are in the scary desert of the American experiment. Our wants, our hopes, our needs, our expectations are almost meaningless compared to the scary terrain that we are currently facing.

And yet, yet, yet…all that is left is God and us.

Insignificance
Photo by Simon Hurry on Unsplash

If my experience teaches me anything we are going to discover how frightfully insignificant we are and how completely significant we are all at the same time. We are going to discover how little our individual lives matter to the tidal wave of change that is hitting us. And we are going to discover how much we matter to God. We are going to discover the terrifying and ecstatic reality of life in the wilderness, life on pilgrimage.

A Pilgrim Diary: Making Our Way Home.

That will be the new blog title and platform. Thanks for helping me shape this new voice.

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

The Holy Conversation

tandem
Photo by Lucky Airlangga on Unsplash

An astute reader pointed out this past week that when I said in my last blog, “Thanks for being along for the ride,” that I conveyed that this whole conversational, transformational, dialogical, culture-shifting project that I am embarking on was not all that serious. She knew that wasn’t my intent, but pointed out that the usual definition of “being along for the ride” denotes a half-hearted, non-engaged approach to things. She was right. I may have communicated something that was the exact opposite of my intent.

Many of you know that I am a rather serious cyclist. I have competed in the National Championships as a young adult and embarked on some ambitious cycling adventures including a romp up to Everest Base Camp where our group ascended five mountains over 17,000 feet. What I was trying to communicate was, “Thanks for being willing to strap your feet into the pedals with me and join this crazy theological, sociological, and cultural adventure we find ourselves on.” I may not take you up to Everest, but this adventure won’t be any less ambitious.

conversation
Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com

Now that I have that cleared up, l want to share what has evolved over the last week (remember, we are on an unfolding pilgrimage here). After my last post on seeking a “Public Platform,” I was reminded of something that I began saying nearly two decades ago. As I have worked with churches wanting to connect with the broader community I have repeatedly said, “I believe the future of the Church is going to come from the dialogue between our rich historic traditions and the emerging spiritualities of our time.”

This is important because there are some who have rejected the Church completely and, while I understand their disappointment, I don’t think the future will be dependent just on their rejection. On the other hand, there are many in the Church who only want to recover a past when their voice was dominant in society (called Christendom). I know for sure that the future will not be the result of simply turning back the cultural and religious clock.

The future, I believe, is going to emerge from a both/and mentality.

cathedral
Photo by Jose Llamas on Unsplash

We have been living in an either/or society with regard to religion for too long. Either the church will recover its dominant voice or the anti-religious secular voices will now replace it and dominate. I do not believe that is healthy for our society nor do I believe that God works in such rigid either/or dualities. Religious belief and life has thrived for thousands of years for a reason. Simply to discard it now sounds like cultural suicide. On the other hand, a secular humanism has taken deep root in our Western civilization. Many of the values that our religious traditions espouse are now adopted by this humanism, just “without the baggage” of religion, as some would say.

The answer is not a return to Christendom, when the Christian voice dominated. Nor is the answer a pure secular humanism. I don’t have THE answer, but I do believe that it will emerge from what I am calling a Holy Conversation.

creativity
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

One thing I want to be clear about is that if my hunch is right—that this is a conversation that we MUST have—this blog will write itself. Yes, I will actually have to punch the keys and organize the words and hit the “send” button, but the content and the energy will come from you. I will promise to be a good dialogue partner, but I won’t dictate the content nor the direction. That will be up to the Spirit or the Sacred Impulse or the unfolding of a divine drama of which we are only minor actors.

What I promise is to follow the energy of this. Not to try to contain it in a once-a-week blog, but to write whenever and as often as something needs to be said. Healthy conversations have both periods of frenetic energy as well as reflective pauses. I will promise to follow the energy of the conversation—even if it means a few late night posts to keep up with it.

This is my commitment to you. I will initiate this conversation. I will make space for it and for you. I will follow every thread and possibility until we come out the other side. I will stay with this until we find something hopeful, healing and redemptive for our churches, for our society and for our common humanity.

coming home
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

I will stay with this until we come home to each other again.

Come home to each other.

Come home.

Home.

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

A Public Platform

Welcome to the great unfolding! Just by virtue of writing my way through this you are helping me find my voice as we all move through a significant shift. This is a transformational moment for all of us. I appreciate you being along for the ride.

new beginning
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I know sometime in the next few weeks I will be inviting you into new blog. While there is much that I am still working out, last week I was able to confirm that the community to whom I will be speaking will be much broader than the church audience that I have primarily been writing for during the past four plus years.

The reasons for this are simple:

  • I have an established history of connecting with multiple audiences even if not all at the same time;
  • In a denomination that continues to decline every year, we either need to learn to connect with the broader community or accept the movement toward irrelevance;
  • The stakes are too high these days not to. If we cannot find a common language or common values from which to live, America has a very precarious, if not violent, future.
  • The role of religious leadership is to call our communities, our nation and our world to live into our deepest and most authentic humanity. I would not be following my calling if I dodged this responsibility.

Woodburn 1Last week I titled my blog, “A Public Pulpit.” The title represented a return to the memory of my childhood when what was said on Sunday from the pulpit often reverberated through the whole community. Back in the day, at least where I grew up, what the preacher said on Sunday was often a topic around office water coolers on Monday.

Quite honestly, I would like to resurrect that tradition.

But, first we must overcome a monumental barrier of our own making. It’s not that preachers don’t have something worth talking about, it’s that what we say comes with the baggage associated with preaching from a pulpit. The pulpit is not just some wooden platform suited to a good lecture. A pulpit comes with a whole history of authority—preachers who knew Greek and Hebrew, were trained in hermeneutics, exegesis, and soteriology (and could even spell those words!), and who could speak authoritatively about the culture, language and customs of the Biblical world. In other words, preachers were the experts who were seen as literally preaching “the Word of God.”

authority
Photo by Pete Alexopoulos on Unsplash

What I realized this week is that I don’t need a public pulpit if pulpit is still understood as a podium (virtual or not) where I am the only authorized personnel. What I need is a platform to simply get the conversation started. I am less concerned about whether people agree or disagree, accept or reject, or applaud or jeer at what I say. What I want is to get the a holy conversation started. One of the reasons I studied both political science and religion in college was that these were the two topics worth talking about!

Agreement is not the goal; dialogue is.

church of the wildThis morning I had a phone call with Victoria Loorz, author of Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred. In her book (and I am going to appeal to my expertise in the field here!) she wrote that many scholars believe that the Greek word logos found in John 1: 1-4 was actually translated into Latin during the first four centuries after Jesus’ death as sermo. Sermo is most often translated as conversation, not word.

What do you think of that?

  • Conversations
    Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash
    What if our pulpits weren’t seen as the place where the one, authoritative Word of God was spoken, but as the place where important conversations start.
  • What if preachers didn’t have to carry the burden of getting it right, but simply offered their experience, their training and their reflections as a way to invite people into their own encounter with God and the Sacred?
  • What if a sermon wasn’t really finished until people also discussed it around the water coolers on Monday?

What if Victoria Loorz is right—that John 1:1 should actually be translated as “In the beginning was the Conversation…”

Wouldn’t that be fun!

Now, I know two things as I discern my emerging voice:

  1. That my readership will be made up of the broad and richly diverse community reflected in my personal and professional relationships, and;
  2. That my role in this emerging platform is not to speak authoritatively for the church or anyone, but simply to speak honestly, authentically and transparently so as to serve as a catalyst for the Holy Conversation.

Thanks for being along for the ride.

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

A Public Pulpit

voice
Photo by Hussein Abdullah on Unsplash

Something is shifting, that much I know. In my last blog, I spoke of this time of Sacred Absence as I have been listening for both the platform and the character of my voice. I have been saying for months that I can feel a shift from teasing out a vision to strategically living into a vision.

There is still much I don’t know about my emerging voice, but one thing is becoming clear. I do know to whom I am speaking. This is important. There is history to this unfolding story.

newspaper
Photo by Ashni on Unsplash

Nearly thirty years ago I was a preacher in a PCUSA church in Northern California. In my naivete as a young 33-year old I thought I would be able to speak to the church community on Sunday morning and to the broader community in a column in the religion section of the local paper (remember when religion had its own page!). I effectively reached both groups, but I completely underestimated how culturally different those two groups were. Bringing them together in one community proved to be an impossible task and, in fact, resulted in two different churches.

I learned over the years that in order to survive I would need to develop two languages—one for the traditional church and another for the broader community. I spent years where I both served as a pastor and developed resources for human services. But I also was careful not to mix the two as human services was wary of any religious agenda and churches were uncomfortable with the more generalized language of spirituality. Again, I knew how to effectively speak to both, but not bring them together.

alone book coverAfter my pilgrimage in 2011 (Alone: A 4,000 Mile Search for Belonging), I found for the first time that my most authentic voice was actually reaching people on both sides of the church walls. I began to explore the religious landscape of mysticism and pilgrimage in a blog tilted www.pedalpilgrim.com. There I discovered that my audience was split nearly 50/50—50% were people who were on the edges of the church, but still committed to the institution; 50% were people who could generally be listed as spiritual, but not religious or humanist.

I will be honest with you. When I took this position as the executive of the Presbytery of the Cascades, I abandoned my www.pedalpilgrim.com blog believing that much of what I wrote there would be too challenging for much of the presbytery. I have always believed that transformative work ALWAYS has to start with where the people are which is why I started this position off with a listening tour. But I grieved the loss of my former blog and united community in favor of a blog (Holy Breadcrumbs) that was intended almost exclusively for a church audience.

I said above that there is still much I don’t know as I make this shift. But the one thing I do know is to whom I am speaking. Somewhere in the next few weeks you will be invited to a new blog and a new platform. What I do know about that new blog is this—I will be speaking to the broader public that constitutes my larger community.

My broader community includes the following groups of people:

  • diversity
    Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash
    Faithful church members in a variety of mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations;
  • Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist. Unitarian Universalist, and Daoist adherents;
  • People who grew up in the church and who now live their religious values out in a secular society;
  • People who call themselves spiritual but not religious;
  • People on the radical political left;
  • People who identify as gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual
  • Family members who are Hispanic and Native American
  • People who consider connecting with the Sacred in nature their form of worship;
  • People who would identify as evangelical conservative and politically right wing;
  • People who would call themselves humanists and who serve the community in government roles, non-profits and mission-oriented businesses.
  • Religious and spiritual pilgrims

This is the community of people–family, friends, and colleagues–with whom I associate on a regular basis. It is also a community of people that struggles with coming together around a common vision for a shared life.

This is what I do know.

Commons
Photo by Caleb McGuire on Unsplash

Our time calls for religious leaders to not only speak to the religiously faithful, but to the whole community. If our country is going to successfully navigate through the divisive, violent and nasty spirit of our time, we are going to have to find a way to come home to each other.

I may not get this right. I may not be the right person or the best person. But I do know that my own community represents some of the diversity of our country. If I can get my people to listen to and talk to each other, maybe we can find a common table for all of us.

This is what I do know. I can no longer speak to just one group at a time.

My soul can no longer be split into two.

I need to nurture a public pulpit.

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

Sacred Absence

It took a face-to-face reminder of how much some people look to my writing to get this blog written. Last Sunday I was at a commissioning service when one of the members pulled me aside and said, “The first thing I do on Thursday mornings is read your Holy Breadcrumbs blog. I am not sure what happened, but my technology seems to have failed me.” I quickly let her know that it was not her technology that had failed her! I admit that I dropped off the edge of the earth with regard to my writing recently.

absence
Photo by Akshar Dave🌻 on Unsplash

I am titling this blog “Sacred Absence” as it captures the reason behind this drop off. Emotionally and spiritually I have needed a pause. For over four years, I have been writing under the Holy Breadcrumbs title. It has had a certain and specific purpose—to tease out a new vision for the presbytery by tossing ecclesiastical spit wads at the wall and seeing which ones stuck. Okay, the better Biblical image is of tossing hundreds of seeds out onto the soil of our churches, but you get the point.

moving forward
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

With the adoption of our new mission and vision, we have shifted from discerning which direction to go to living into something new. That is all welcome and wonderful news. It also means that my voice and my writing must change. I need to drop the cloak of playfully teasing us forward to now strategically leading us forward. That is a different kind of writing and a different kind of voice.

My silence exposes my need to enter into a time of discernment. It is one of the reasons that pastors receive two weeks of study leave every year and a three-month sabbatical. We need time to let the Spirit talk to us without the pressures of needing to produce something wise, pithy, contextual, honest and inspirational on a weekly basis. Just as good music comes from the rests between the notes, good spiritual leadership is grounded in the sacred absences from the 24-7 pressures of religious leadership.

camino de sonomaAt the same hour that this blog is published, I will be leaving for California to walk the 75-mile Camino de Sonoma over six days. I have done pilgrimages before and I know the power of disconnecting from the digital world, making room for the Soul to expand, and allowing the Spirit to do Her work. I am confident that I will return with my voice clearer, my writing more focused, and my purpose reinforced.

I write this blog to let you know that I have not gone away forever. I am not done writing. But Holy Breadcrumbs will look different, feel different, and maybe even have a different name when I emerge from this Sacred Absence. Trust me, I am not going away. I am just spiritually regrouping as we enter this new transformational season in the presbytery.

Presence and absence are part of the dance of relationship.

I promise you, I am present even in my absence.

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

“Happy Last Supper”

“Happy Last Supper”

That was the closing remark from a songwriter as he finished his original song about the loss of a recent relationship.

Songwriter SoireeI decided this year to observe Maundy Thursday in the community and Good Friday in a church. The experience was eye-opening. It gave me more to ponder and wrestle with than I had imagined. I bought a ticket to the Songwriter’s Soiree in Portland. This is a community of nearly 300 people that has grown over the past fifteen years around the commitment to create “a culture of appreciation for vulnerability,” as one member framed it. The vulnerability is getting up in front of an audience to perform an original song, often for the first time.

Maundy ThursdayWhile I was sitting in my chair pondering the liturgy of Maundy Thursday services in our churches I was also aware of how much the themes of Maundy Thursday kept showing up in these original songs. In many ways, I think it was coincidence. Songwriters tend to write what is on their hearts at the time and the songs that were showing up kept going back to themes of death, grief, loss, longing and heartache. It is not difficult to imagine that those same emotions were playing out during the Last Supper between Jesus and his disciples. In this time of pandemic and war, death, loss and grief is pretty much what all of us are thinking about.

But, back to that one offhand comment, “Happy Last Supper.” First, the comment did elicit a knowing and polite laugh from some in the audience.  It was clear that at least some knew that they were holding this Songwriter Soiree on the same night other family members, friends and neighbors were in churches observing Maundy Thursday.

But it was the tone of the comment and the ensuing chuckles that struck me. This was not the comment of some rebellious child giving the proverbial middle-finger to an older generation of parents and grandparents. There was a maturity to the comment as if his experience had been polished over time. The comment sounded less like, “Screw you,” and more like, “We are aware that we know something that you don’t.”

It was as if the comment was a way of saying, “Look, mom and dad, we respect your tradition, but we think we have outdone you on this one.” It wasn’t arrogance speaking, just honest self-reflection.

It was a marvelous evening of vulnerability, creativity, and reflection. Even a little “Passing of the Peace” and “sharing around the table” was observed and spiritually reflected upon.

There are two things I am taking from the evening that are worth sharing with you:

last supperFirst, they take the Da Vinci Last Supper painting seriously, if not literally. The positioning of the disciples in that Da Vinci painting show the disciples basically reclining against each other. This is not the table where elbows are not allowed to touch and everyone is equally spaced apart. No, live bodies are actively touching in this painting.

Cuddle Cushions
Watching the songwriters from the “cuddle cushions.”

At the Songwriter’s Soiree, the front of the room closest to the stage was set up with loads of large pillows and cushions. They called this area the “Cuddle Cushions.” It was for anyone who wanted to enjoy the evening nestled up against another human being. Anyone was welcome but all needed to comply with the rule that all touching had to come by mutual consent. Look at the Da Vinci painting. The disciples were cuddlers.

Secondly, one of the things that we keep hearing about what younger generations want from religious services is more participation. They don’t want to be preached at by one credentialed person; they want to interact with stories and themes.

TogetherWe were settled into this night of singing for nearly five hours. Over that time, about 125 people enjoyed the program and about fifty of those people WERE the program. Each of them had original songs to share with the audience. Here is what I think they got right with regard to the culture of younger people. The organizers of the Songwriter Soiree didn’t provide a program for the audience to consume; they simply provided the container for the audience to participate in.

What would happen if the role of the clergy was simply to create a “culture of appreciation for vulnerability” and leave the preaching to the people?

I know, I know! This is a dangerous question to ask a group of Reformed Presbyterians who pride themselves on an educated, scholarly clergy. But I want us to be honest with ourselves. If you had a choice between hearing one charismatic, compassionate and amazing preacher preach on Maundy Thursday themes or hearing fifty of your friends share their original songs or poems or art on death, loss and grief, which would you choose?

We have some good preachers. But that’s hard to compete with—especially if cuddling is also thrown in.

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

Let Us Pray…

There is this moment that changes everything for me. I only became aware of it in recent months. Or maybe I actually shifted my practice in recent months without being aware of it.

Those of us in church ministry are exposed to many opportunities to pray, sometimes several times a day. If a committee or task force is true to their mission, they will often open and close meetings with prayer. Quite honestly, if one is not careful these prayers can become so routine that they get tuned out as if it’s just one more agenda item to check off the list.

But I have noticed something recently. There is a profound moment just before a prayer starts that seems to change my world—or at least my lens on the world.

PrayingAs soon as the prayer says, “Let us pray,” my muscles relax, my energy drops from my head to my heart, my breath becomes deeper, and my eyes, even though closed, soften. It seems I enter a liminal space and everything in my head disappears, even if just for a brief moment.

I am amazed at how quickly my body responds to these words. It is the same visceral response that I feel when I walk into a room where fresh baked chocolate chip cookies are cooling; or seeing a baby burst out giggling; or coming around a bend and being flooded by an effervescent full moon.

I am sure that my response has been trained into me after decades of professional church life and work. Another person who hears those words for the first time might feel more of an awkwardness than the calming, centering, grounding effect it has on my body.

I am struck by how simple it is to change my lens on the world. In the same time that it takes to breathe one deep breath I am able to shift from the anxiety of trying to get everything done to the calmness that reminds me that Presence is all that is needed. Prayer, or at the least call to prayer is magically, mysteriously powerful.

Fifteen years ago I was serving a church that was in the very awkward space of facing an unknown future—closure, new church development, or legacy. Many of the leaders in the church wanted a plan in order to ease their anxiety. Repeatedly, I reminded them that the most faithful thing they could do at that moment was simply to “breathe and trust.” I couldn’t promise them a certain future, but I could try to teach them to trust.

checklist

Not long after that we had a church consultant work with us on the necessary steps to discern our future. As we listened to her we kept checking off the boxes, “Yep, did that, did that, did that.” She went through about eight different tasks all of which we had done except one, “Commit to a period of community prayer.”

That’s all we needed to hear. It changed our lens and over the next three months we quit doing all kinds of stuff and simply paused long enough to pray. And that pause changed our world and the trajectory of the church. I am in this position today because of what I learned from that experience.

Breathe tile
The “Thank You” gift

After I concluded my work there, two of the leaders gave me a gift as a reminder of our work together. What they told me was, “The most important thing we learned from you, Brian, was to just stop and breathe and trust.” I didn’t get accolades for coming up with a watertight plan. I didn’t get a special award for some great accomplishment. What I received was a simple kitchen tile thanking me for teaching them to breathe.

Prayer is the pause that changes the world.

Seriously, might it be that simple?

Let us pray…

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