The Arlington Story

Last week I wrote on the theme of “right sizing” and how important it is for our physical, spiritual and emotional development. As best we can as we move through life our external world should match our internal world. The point in that blog was that as we mature in the first half of life we often outgrow our spaces. The reverse is true as well. As we age, our spaces often become more of burden than a blessing. Thus, we spend much of our lives deciding how and when to “right size.”

I promised the story of a church who in the process of discerning a downsizing ended up upsizing their mission many times over. Their story is nothing less than inspiring. The scope of what they accomplished is staggering. But this shouldn’t be seen as a rare exception—just the story of one amazing church who seemed to defy the odds.

empty roomThe fact of the matter is that we Presbyterians have incredible assets at our disposal. I think we have forgotten that because we are so used to looking at membership numbers and attendance. We have grieved over the losses we have experienced the last five decades forgetting that fewer people has meant more space. That empty Sunday School classroom is both a reason for grief and a reason to celebrate new possibility.

What if we shifted our question from, “How do we get people into our buildings?” to “How can our buildings serve the community around us?”

One church that did that beautifully and faithfully is Arlington.

Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia had seen its membership decline from 150 to 65 over a seventeen-year period. They owned a large piece of property on what is considered the Main Street of Arlington. As they struggled with the uncertainty of their own future they asked the question, “For whom are our hearts breaking?

 In order to find that answer they set out quizzing waitresses, teachers and store clerks who bought from the food truck in the church parking lot or shopped at the nearby farmer’s market. They met the people in their neighborhood. They heard a consistent response from the largely working-class, immigrant residents, “I work here, but can’t afford to live here anymore.” The congregation prayed and talked. Then they prayed and talked some more.

affordable housingAs they discerned God’s call for them they finally heard, “The call to create affordable housing was bigger than the old building itself—so the walls came down.” Now, in partnership with an affordable housing developer, they are building a 173-unit affordable housing complex on a site that once served 65 church members. The site also will be the home to a culinary job training program.

It had to be a tough decision as the old building carried memories of weddings, memorial services, baptisms, potlucks and Christmas pageants. The decision meant the loss of a congregational ministry and also a renewed commitment to a community mission. Sometimes the decision to downsize opens up great possibilities for upsizing in a renewed way.

Read more of the story here THE ARLINGTON VISION

Questions for your congregation as you consider how you return to your buildings in coming months:

  1. Is your building being utilized at its full capacity? Does it sit nearly empty six days a week?
  2. “For whom are your hearts breaking?”
  3. Who do you need to hear from in your community?
  4. Who are your neighbors? What are their physical, emotional and spiritual needs?
  5. What agencies and businesses have a deep investment in your neighborhood or town?
  6. Besides Christian fellowship and worship what is your mission in the community?
  7. What help do you need from the presbytery to help you discern your mission to the community?

The Arlington story reminds us that preaching and people are not our only asset. Sometimes our buildings and property are the best way to carry out Christ’s mission in the community.

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

Right-Sizing

Do you remember when right-sizing meant moving from a dorm room to a small one-bedroom apartment? Or from a small one-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house? Or even from the three-bedroom house to the five-bedroom house on the half acre lot?

Quaint houseThose were exciting times, weren’t they? In this ideal American narrative right-sizing meant allowing for the growth of family and increasing financial security? It’s just plain fun to imagine needing more room, a bigger house, and more yard for children to play and dogs to run around in.

Right-sizing can be a lot of fun when it is upsizing.

But, I would submit that right-sizing is a life-long process that equally includes upsizing and downsizing. In a typical life cycle our bodies grow, our energy increases, and we need more room to match our expanding horizons.

But, the reverse is also true. As we age, our worlds begin shrinking again. We have less energy. Our attention becomes more limited to the things and people closest to us. Eventually that five-bedroom home often feels more like a burden than a blessing. You began asking, “Do I really want to have to rake all those leaves. Wouldn’t I rather have more time to read, sing in the choir and play with grandchildren?”

tiny homeRight sizing is important for our emotional, spiritual and physical health. Being physically cramped can stunt our growth and keep our souls from growing. And having too much room can leave us so burdened by physical responsibilities that spiritual expression can’t seem to find any traction.

We spend our personal lives right-sizing often expanding our living spaces and broadening our horizons during the first half of life and then contracting in the latter half of life as energy diminishes and our souls seek deepening more than broadening.

Right-sizing is important our whole lives long. It just happens to be that upsizing is a lot more fun than downsizing. But from a spiritual perspective they are equally important. Right-sizing is about honoring the seasons of life and God’s sacred rhythms. Right-sizing is about getting our external reality to mirror our internal reality.

But here is the really cool thing.

empty pewsUpsizing is a process of making room for growth that we can see and expect. Downsizing is no different. Downsizing is also a process of making room for God to show up. Except that unlike upsizing where the evidence is often apparent, downsizing takes a bit more trust. God seems to wait until we have fully committed to the downsizing to show up. That’s sort of scary like falling backward with no guarantee that someone is going to catch you.

Does your church building represent the actual energy in your congregation? If not, do you need to upsize to make more room for the untapped energy? Or do you need to downsize to unburden yourself from physical responsibilities in order to make room for more spiritual expression.

God doesn’t care what size your building is. All God cares about is that your building is more of a blessing than a burden.

Next week read about a church that downsized and ended up upsizing their mission tenfold and a hundred fold.

Right-sizing is a way of making room for God.

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

 

Lent 2021: Pondering the Pandemic

Dear Readers,

ash wednesdayAs I write this, our churches are observing Ash Wednesday as we move into the traditional 40-day period of Lent. Lent is historically a time for repentance, reflection and “getting right with God” in the language of our revivalist brothers and sisters. This year Lent coincides with an increasing amount of information from church consultants who are tracking trends in the church during the pandemic period. Lent forces us to ask the question, “How do get right with God in this time,” or asked in a more Presbyterian way, “How do we align ourselves with what God is doing in this fragile and fertile time?”

I decided to use my blog space this week to offer a way for your church to observe Lent and take an honest look at how this pandemic may be affecting your church and inviting you into something new. Below is one question for each Sunday through Easter where you can reflect on some of the questions and trends that church consultants posing as the church is experiencing a radical transformation.

I hope you find this helpful.

February 21       The body as truth-teller?

Floating bodyWhat messages is your body giving you in this time? Intuitive people will tell you that they often know something in their body before their mind can articulate it. What is your body telling you right now? Are you like a horse in the starting gate which can’t wait to hear the gun and get to the work of coronavirus recovery? Are you like the car accident victim shell-shocked and emotionally paralyzed? Are you like the grieving spouse who simultaneously is experiencing loss even as she anticipates a new life?

February 28       Adopting or Adopted?

adoptionChurch consultants who are studying trends expect a wave of “church adoptions” in coming years. Churches with a higher degree of long-term sustainability will be in a position to adopt and take in churches with a low degree of long-term sustainability. Is your church more likely to fit the profile of the adopting church or is your church more likely to fit the profile of the adopted church? (This is not the only choice, but it helps the church to see whether it has resources to offer other churches or will need to be the recipient of resources.)

March 7              Small and strong? Small and fragile? Large and uncertain?

Church consultants are seeing three patterns emerge. 1. Smaller churches with a high percentage of engaged people don’t seem to be as impacted by the pandemic. 2. Smaller churches which were already feeling fragile before the pandemic are reaching the point of crisis. 3. Larger churches (over 250 in attendance) may experience 20-30% drops in attendance as those churches typically have higher proportions of nominally engaged members. Do you see your church in one of these three categories? If so, what does it mean for you and your ministry as you plan for the future beyond 2021?

March 14            Permanently changed?

In what ways has the coronavirus pandemic changed the face of the church permanently? In other words, what practices and approaches have you adopted in this time that you now believe need to be carried on beyond the pandemic?

March 21            In-person? Online?  Hybrid?

OnlineMost of our churches have learned how to “be church” digitally. When we emerge from the other side of this pandemic what percentage of your church life will be in person, what percentage will be online, and what percentage will be a hybrid?

March 28            Want and Need?

In what ways would your answer to these questions be different? What do you WANT your church to be post-pandemic? What do you think the church NEEDS to be post-pandemic? This is really the God question.

April 4                 Easter Sunday!

Our most essential Christian narrative is the one of death and resurrection. In this time, what do you believe is dying? What do you believe is being born? How will your church live into the death and resurrection story?

Note: Some of the trends were gleaned from the blog “12 Major Trends for Churches in 2021” by Thom Rainier

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

“I’m Out!”

“I’m out!”

Those were the first words in an email of the Rev. Matt Gough when I reached out to him to see if he would be comfortable having his sermon shared in my blog this week. I was checking to make sure that he was comfortable with his vulnerability being shared beyond his local congregation. He thanked me for checking, but assured me “I’m out” as a recognition that he wouldn’t be able to control the narrative now.

Matt shared a deeply touching and vulnerable sermon (link here) about being diagnosed with autism and social anxiety while serving as a minister where being a “social butterfly,” as he put it, is often considered a prerequisite. I promised not to make him the subject of my blog this week, but to share his story as another example of a blog topic I had already planned for the week.

Woodburn 1Last week I taped a sermon (link here) for the whole presbytery titled, “Just As I Am,” as I reflected on the hymn of the same title and my own experience of learning to love myself “just as I am.” Quite honestly, the church does not make it easy to love ourselves just as we are. We preach a good sermon on it. We have a deep and wonderful theology that affirms it. But, in practice, the church has an unconscious way of reinforcing a more narrow narrative that doesn’t easily allow for the diversity of our human experience.

Matt’s “coming out” was especially important for First, Corvallis as they are going through a process to make a declarative statement to be an “open and affirming church.” But in a brilliant flash of wisdom and courage he told the congregation this last Sunday, “I was asking the church to do something that I have not allowed it to do for me.” He was referring, of course, to the years of masking and hiding his social anxiety afraid that if people knew the real him he wouldn’t be accepted or respected as a pastor.

Matt’s experience is not uncommon. The sermon that I preached this week is part of my long process of coming out to myself and to the church. I came out to myself over two decades ago, but coming out to the church has taken much longer as I constantly assess what is safe and what is helpful for the church to know.

be yourselfMore of the information is in my sermon, but I have been slow to let the church get to know the real me because it often feels that my narrative doesn’t fit, or it makes people uncomfortable, or people just don’t know what to do with it. I am a child of a teenage mother who left our family. My parents have been married eleven times between them. I am divorced and living the life of “discreet dating” that unmarried ministers feel obligated to uphold.

This week I had a monumental event in my family, but you would have never known it—because like Matt I haven’t allowed you into my personal world. After many years of my second child working through gender identity issues, Jules and I had a conversation where he (formally she/them) informed me that he was ready to be called my son. This is monumental for me and our family. This has been years in the making.

Why haven’t I shared it?

hiding faceBecause what I need is for people to celebrate with me and my fear is that I will spend more time educating you and defending my child and I don’t want to do that. I just want to celebrate this moment and enjoy it. So I don’t take the risk to allow the church to accept me as I am. I hide my real self and my real story and, in the process, give you no opportunity to love the diversity that is right in front of you.

Over the years, this issue of people hiding their real selves has become scarily apparent to me.

  • I have heard members tell me the week after missing a Sunday, “Sorry, pastor, I just didn’t have the energy last week to put my church face on.”
  • I have spoken with dozens of people who have said, “I like the people of this church, but I would never share my real beliefs with them.”
  • Members have shared with me, “I enjoy this church, but my real spiritual community is my AA group where I can be honest and authentic.”
  • After sharing parts of my story from the pulpit individual members have confided in me, “I too have a gay or lesbian child. I wished I felt safe to tell my friends in church.”

Why do I share this now? Because in recent years the presbytery has been focusing more efforts on mirroring the diversity of our communities in our churches and leadership. Our presbytery is 97% white. When I came up for election for this position one of our commissioners half seriously and half in-jest said, “I was hoping for a black lesbian woman for this position, but seeing that we didn’t get that candidate, you will do.” It wasn’t a jab. It was a way of affirming my call to the position while also making a statement about our “diversity deficit.”

My point today is this. We want more diversity, but first we must learn to acknowledge, accept and celebrate the diversity that already exists within us. We all have to quit hiding from ourselves, from each other and from God. It’s time to get real with each other. It’s time to act more like AA and less like a country club.

Matt, thank you for giving us that chance.

And thank you to all of you who are willing to take the risk to say, “God loves me just as I am. I want you to love me that way too.”

Matt’s Sermon link: “Silencing the Demons”

Brian’s Sermon link: “Just As I Am”

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

Lessons from a Moving Van

I have some really great news—at least to me!

Home Pic
The view from the front

After eighteen years of transitional ministry and interim positions, I finally bought a house. I am absolutely thrilled and delighted! The house was built in 1900 and has all kinds of quirky character to it, a little like me.

I chose it for a number of reasons: it was close to my grandchildren in Oregon City; it was in my price range; it keeps me close to the county roads for good summer cycling; and the house was just the right size for this one-person household, small enough to take care of and big enough to entertain guests and family.

But as I was moving in I realized that my experience might be a lesson for many of our churches. I realized that the neighborhood I was moving into, at least on the surface, represented people who don’t look like me, think like me or act like me. I realized that the adventure I was about to embark on was sounding vaguely familiar to the refrain I have heard from so many churches: “Over the years the neighborhood changed around us. We feel like strangers in our own land.”

This picture from my moving van is this:

  • The people in the neighborhood look different from the typical upscale Presbyterians with whom I spend much of my life.
  • Neighborhood Pic
    The view down the street

    While the people I know often park their cars in garages and pay mechanics to work on them, it’s not unusual in my new neighborhood to see a car up on blocks or with the hood up and a couple of men tinkering with tools.

  • I am more used to seeing storage units used to conceal possessions, but many homes here have extra appliances, unused wood, and surplus furniture stored under protective eaves or even on the lawn.
  • While most of the yards are pretty well-kept, only a handful are what I would call a manicured lawn.
  • Trucks and service vehicles parked on the street expose that the neighborhood is probably more working class than educated professionals.
  • At two nearby houses, empty Coors cans, soda cans and cigarette butts litter the front yard and driveways.

This year we have become painfully aware of the structural biases inherent in our system. We have had to be honest with ourselves about what the Black Lives Matter movement teaches us. We have seen a violent attack on the Capitol building by people who have felt left behind by a “liberal elite.” We are more divided than ever. And the division lives within our own hearts.

Be the changeAs I move into a new house and a new neighborhood I want to make sure that I am contributing toward the healing of our nation and communities rather than exacerbating it. I want to overcome my own biases and now I have an opportunity.

I have decided to be intentional about not letting my biases get in the way of creating community in my new neighborhood. I offer this as a gift to you. If you are in a church where the “neighborhood changed around you” and you feel like strangers in your own land, I hope this can be helpful.

Here are my intentions:

  1. I will get to know my neighbors and accept them for who they are;
  2. I will not assume that I have more to offer the community by virtue of my education or professional status;
  3. I will be a good neighbor offering help where I can and asking for help when I need it.
  4. I will assume that my new neighbors have as much to offer me as I have to offer them;
  5. I will look for God to show up in un-expected, non-Presbyterian ways;
  6. I will assume that the healing of our religious/political/social divides is best done one neighborly relationship at a time;
  7. I will maintain my own character without judging their character;
  8. I will use my Christian faith to connect rather than to divide.
  9. I will assume that this is an opportunity to grow, to learn, and to become a more inclusive person.
  10. I will even drink a Coors if that is what it takes to bridge the great American divide.

Our faith reminds us repeatedly to welcome the stranger. And, in these days, the stranger is probably living right next door to us.

Let’s get to work.

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

Two Approaches–One Christ

Two Approaches—One Christ

I have heard this issue show up in a couple of different forums recently and it felt like it was time to try to articulate it. The reason is very clear—not all of our churches approach the mission of Jesus Christ the same way.

Duh, right!

rainbow flowerI feel this is important to say so that we can move more toward an appreciation of each other in our different ministries.

This issue was most clearly communicated in a meeting where a church representative spoke of feeling that their church’s ministry was not in line with the broader presbytery. It was quickly noted that the comment revealed the difference between Matthew 25 churches and Matthew 28 churches.

I think what was implied was that some congregations see their essential identity as a “mission to the least of these”  and others as bringing more people to Christ “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” One congregation sees their primary call of doing the work of Christ in the community; another congregation sees their primary call to bring individual people to Christ.

But I have wondered why this issue is a cause for separation rather than celebration. I have wondered why we don’t see this as a sign that our presbytery is actually healthier for it rather than weaker for it.

stained glassOf course, I do know that I am just wondering out loud. But one of my experiences is that churches that focus on the evangelical approach of Matthew 28 seem to reach people who have a real need for the gift of the Christian narrative. People for whom the narrative gives them a different lens from which to view the world—whether it is the drug addict who needs to write a new story or the corporate executive who needs to rethink his or her definition of success or the perfectionist who hears for the first time the story of grace.

My experience of Matthew 25 churches is that they often seem to reach people who share similar value systems even if they don’t agree on the narrative. I can remember a number of individuals in churches where I served where participants weren’t members and, who often weren’t even Christians, but who committed to the church because of their shared values in serving the community, working for peace and justice, and enjoying close friendships.

Could it be that there is more than one way to minister in the community and still be faithful to Christ?

Could it be that some people’s salvation comes through Matthew 28 churches and others through Matthew 25 churches? Not all of us are wired the same.

Could it be that a presbytery that has both is a presbytery showing real signs of health and maturity?

And, maybe, just maybe our healthiest congregations live out both Matthew 25 and 28.

It just seems to me that our differences should be cause for celebration rather than separation.

Just sayin’…

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

Not All Time is Equal

Not all time is equal.

ClocksI am sure that most of you have heard a sermon from one of your pastors on the difference between chronos time and Kairos time. Chronos is the Greek word for the sequence of quantitative time, whereas Kairos is the Greek word for the right or opportune moment—qualitative time. The first is linear where one second is the same as the next second. The latter speaks to the experience of time. Presbyterian author, Frederick Buechner, has a way of searing these definitions into our brains. He reminds us that not all time is the equal such as experiencing your first kiss or touching a hot stove with your finger.

Kairos time is about the right or opportune moment. In the church we often call it “God time.” As I look back over my life, it seems that so much of my life can be captured in a sequence of events, chronos time. I can give a chronological account of my life telling you what I did during each year as if I was writing an outline for a biography. But it wouldn’t tell the real story.

Bicycle racerSince becoming an adult, I have lived approximately 22,750,000 minutes of chronological time. But I can distinctly remember about 31 minutes of Kairos time, God time. Thirty minutes of that was watching a half hour program highlighting the bicycle racer, George Mount, as he trained for the 1980 Olympics. I was in my first year of college in Idaho at the time. Upon watching that program I immediately began setting in motion the plans to withdraw from college after the winter term, return to Colorado and spend the next few years racing bicycles. It was a Kairos moment. I knew immediately upon watching that program that I was witnessing my future.

The second time was a brief flash of inspiration that probably lasted no more than one minute. My best friend and I were driving back from a trip exploring colleges when I looked over at her while she was driving and realized that I wanted this woman to be my wife.

ASUS 4 282Those 31 minutes of Kairos time have dictated much of my life. Bicycling has continued to be a major theme in my life and the source of many adventures—cycling 4,000 miles through the West, a seven-week pilgrimage from Rome to Konya, Turkey and an expedition up to Everest Base Camp by mountain bike. The one minute of inspiration when I looked over at my best friend resulted in 25 years of marriage, two amazing children, and another two delightful grandchildren.

Not all time is equal.

Kairos time or opportune time is what shapes history. The Christian scriptures are a testament to this. Thirteen of the letters attributed to Paul are the result of a very brief Kairos moment on the Road to Damascus from Jerusalem when Jesus showed up in a vision, convicted Saul of his former life persecuting Christians, and set him on a new path as the most powerful evangelist for our early faith. How long did the encounter take place? It’s hard to know for sure, but based on the dialogue it appears that it was somewhere between a few seconds and a few minutes.

Kairos time—those brief moments that set the direction of our lives for years to come.

heavenly lightI write this to you because I believe we in the Presbytery of the Cascades are in a Kairos moment. I believe that our futures are going to be dependent on being open to the face of God showing up in visions. I believe that we have largely abandoned chronos time this past year. This is Kairos time, God time, an opportune time. This is time when our futures will be less shaped by careful, deliberative planning and more by responding to visions from the heavenly realm.

Two of the best decisions I ever made were made in Kairos time when a vision for my future just showed up, changed my direction and called me into a new life.

Those 31 minutes have dictated the most important aspects of my life.

The Road to Damascus requires about 20,000 minutes of walking.

But not all minutes are equal.

Just ask the Apostle Paul.

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

“Do the Next Right Thing”

“Do the next right thing.”

That is the theme song and message from my granddaughter’s favorite movie, Frozen 2. I share this because it has become a favorite daily mantra of mine ever since a friend introduced me to the line during a conversation about how we are negotiating this troubling, uncertain and anxious time.

I will admit that I have struggled with what to say this week. I still have a blog ready to go on my thoughts about how the Holy Breadcrumbs image may be giving way to a new image more suited to our current context. I had written another blog after receiving a couple of emails from readers about their discomfort with me stepping into the fray of our divisive political context. I was aware that this week’s blog would be published within seven days of the presidential inauguration and that, given our current situation, anything I say on Thursday morning could be outdated by Thursday evening and certainly by next Wednesday.

unknown path

Then I thought about this line that I repeat to myself on most days: “Do the next right thing.” It has guided me and calmed me for weeks. The truth is if I look too far into the future I feel overwhelmed and unsuited to the task of leading a community of faith through a period of an historic pandemic and equally historic political pandemonium. But if I concentrate on what is in front of me for one particular day I almost always feel confident about what I am doing and certain that I am doing “the next right thing.”

People ask me how I am doing. Over and over again I find myself answering, “I am doing fine as long as I just concentrate on one day at a time.”

This theme from Frozen 2 has given me good guidance and it also reminds me that we in the faith community are not alone. Artists, musicians, screenwriters, poets, and novelists are often partners with us providing in spiritual nourishment and guidance to our society. The language may be different, but the message is often the same.

“Do the next right thing” is Disney’s version of faith. The whole premise of faith is being able to act on what is good and right right now even when we can’t see the eventual outcome. The whole premise of faith is to trust that there is a force (a force we call God) in the universe that doesn’t need us to have everything figured out. That force only needs us to be faithful right now and to “do the next right thing.”

This is why I have been writing under the Holy Breadcrumbs title. It is my way of saying, “All we have to do is follow the next holy breadcrumb and trust that when we get to one breadcrumb on the path God will present the next breadcrumb to guide our way.

rubik's cube

I think this is important in this time. I personally am not smart enough to know what to do in coming days that will result in peace, the healing of our society, the restoration of trust between people and the avoidance of conflict and violence. The complexity of our situation is too much for me to know what precise actions will result in my desired outcomes. But I do know that I can continue to act according to my faith. I do know that I can “do the next right thing.” I do know that tomorrow morning I can wake up and “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.”

I will leave you with the benediction that I have offered for years as a pastor. Many of you will recognize it. In it is the invitation to “Do the next right thing.”

Go out into the world in peace;

Have courage;

Hold onto what is good;

Repay no one evil for evil;

Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering;

Honor everyone;

Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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

An Insurrection Reflection

I had nearly completed one blog when the not-completely-surprising insurrection at our nation’s capital filled our TV screens today. Someday I will share with you how the Holy Breadcrumbs image is no longer sufficient for our time, but for today I just need to share some of the initial thoughts that are bouncing around in my head like an out-of-control race car.

riotI have this sick feeling in my stomach. But not from what you would expect. Yes, I feel sick for how far we have fallen in trusting our democratic processes. Yes, I am sickened that people would resort to violence in order to make a point. Yes, I feel sick that the absence of the peaceful passing of the presidential baton will probably haunt us for years to come.

But that is not what is disturbing me the most. In this year of reckoning with the white privilege and racism of our society, I feel sick by what this insurrection has taught us. If all things were equal the first conclusion we would have come to is that our nation’s capital is much less secure than we ever imagined. We would have immediately jumped to the conclusion that if a mob of thousands could so easily vandalize and occupy the chambers of the Senate how vulnerable might we be to Russians and Chinese and Saudis and Iranians? We would have seen this first as a security failure.

George Floyd 2But we all know that the issue is not that our nation is vulnerable and lacking in security. What happened today is the result of white privilege. George Floyd died for attempting to pass a counterfeit bill. Do you think he would have been allowed to step onto federal property, scale a wall, smash a window, and gloat with his feet on the desk of the Speaker of the House? How far would a group of Black Lives Matter protesters have gotten today had they had the same intentions? How about a group of bearded men and burqa-clad American Muslims?

white dinner partyI admit, I have been slow to fully comprehend the issue of white privilege and structural racism. I have been as guilty as the next white person who looks at himself and says, “Couldn’t be. I almost always have good intentions.” But this year is teaching me something—I don’t have to be personally racist in order to participate in structural racism. I don’t have to demand privilege in order to be the recipient of privilege.

If I am wrong, please call me on it. But I just can’t seem to make sense of how a country with the mightiest military and security in the world could not protect its nation’s highest leaders from domestic criminals. I would love to find some other explanation. But increasingly I am having to accept that America’s great sin is racism and white privilege.

I just can’t picture it—thousands of black or Muslim or LGBTQ people somehow getting the upper hand against our nation’s mightiest security. I just can’t picture it—a black man sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s desk without a bullet in his chest. I just can’t picture it—Muslim men scaling the walls of the Capitol without machine-gun equipped helicopters closing in.

There is a lesson here. Either we are more vulnerable than we thought or we are more racist than we thought.

My friends, we have a lot of work to do.

Thank God for a God who doesn’t give up on us.

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

Jesus and Fudge

Christmas, 1989.

SnowIt was the first Christmas after we had moved our young family from California to the Midwest during my first call. I have to admit that we were struggling. I grew up in the snow of Colorado, but I had never experienced a Wisconsin winter. For nineteen straight days, the thermometer didn’t register anything above zero. Yes, Zero degrees Fahrenheit–32 degrees below freezing! I like the cold, but, c’mon, that was ridiculous.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Finding our place in the community was much more difficult than we had expected. In the first five months of our time there, we celebrated four birthdays and one Thanksgiving alone. We had moved away from immediate family and did not realize how isolated we would feel in a new community in the first year of such a big transition.

As Christmas approached, a strange resentment began to settle over me. My dad has never been very timely when it comes to birthday and Christmas presents, but this year, as each day passed I felt the neglect more acutely. We had just recovered from a lonely Thanksgiving and now Christmas was starting to feel the same way.

Christmas eveChristmas Eve arrived and I was struggling to craft a Christmas Eve message. I wanted to do justice to the message of this sacred night and provide a hopeful, joy-filled, positive meditation for my flock. But as I thought about digging deep to make their Christmas special I was secretly pouting about how un-special ours was going to be.

I sat at the computer screen looking for words and inspiration. It just wasn’t coming. How could I write about joy and hope when I personally wasn’t feeling it? I have always prided myself on my authenticity from the pulpit, but authenticity on this night felt selfish and abusive. My personal struggles had no place in the pulpit on this Christmas Eve.

I sat there and dreaded having to force myself to write a message I couldn’t feel. It was 4 p.m. and my Christmas Eve message had to be ready in less than three hours. I was feeling in trouble.

Christmas giftsThen the doorbell rang. My three year-old son ran to the door and greeted a UPS driver holding a large box. It had Oregon tags on it. It had come from my dad and stepmom in Medford. We opened it and pulled numerous carefully wrapped presents from the box and doubled the gifts from under the tree.

But the box was not quite empty. At the bottom was a Tupperware container filled with fudge. I opened it and started to weep. The sweet, rich aroma transported me back to my childhood as I recalled my dad’s annual fudge-making tradition. My mom did pretty much all the cooking in our household, but dad made the chocolate walnut fudge.

chocolate fudgeHere we were 2,200 miles away from family and our Christmas traditions. But my dad had found a way to connect with us and erase the miles between us. Not only that but he had bridged the distance from my adulthood back to my childhood. He had replaced loneliness with connection and resentment with joy and anticipation. He brought a little slice of heaven to my earthly reality.

He saved me that first Christmas Eve.

Three hours later, as I stood before the congregation I told them how hard it been moving to a new part of the country. I told them how lonely we had been celebrating holidays and birthdays on our own. I told them how isolated we had felt and how hard it was to try to scrape up a joyful message for them when we were struggling to find that same joy ourselves.

And then I told them about the box of gifts from my dad who is almost never on time with gifts. I told them about the smiles and the glee on my children’s faces as they lifted each gift out of the box and placed them under the tree. I told them about the chocolate walnut fudge and the tears that ran down my face when I opened the package. I told them about the wave of memories and feelings that flooded back as I breathed in the sweet, rich aroma of my dad’s famous fudge. I told them how much I loved my dad.

Nativity sceneAnd then…

I told them a story about God and how a long time ago God bridged the distance between heaven and earth. I told them the story about a little baby who came just in time to a world that was hurting and down.

I told them my story.

I told them God’s story.

Then we sang Joy to the World.

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