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

Church Camp 2.0

Over the years, I have had conversations with other church leaders about why they wanted to go into the ministry. The two most common stories are either about the kind of church that they grew up in and the other, about the transformative experience of church camp.

Zoom meeting

Many of our churches during the pandemic attracted a whole new demographic of people through online services. One of the questions that I have heard has been, “How are we going to integrate these people who connected with us through technology and who aren’t likely to show up on Sunday mornings?

weird churchIn the book Weird Church, authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, highlight nineteen different models of the emerging church. Two of those models reminded me of the experience of church camp.

I also went to church camp every year from sixth grade until high school. I do remember it as a highlight of my childhood years. That one week in the mountains of Colorado had as much impact on me as the nearly every Sunday experiences of being in church.

I especially remember one dark, cold, clear night sleeping out under the stars during a meteor shower. It was during my second year at Presbyterian church horse camp (I believe the kids were Presbyterian; the horses were all non-denominational!) We had packed our horses with food, cooking equipment, sleeping bags, Bibles and a guitar or two. We rode our horses up the mountain to a 9,000-foot pass and set up camp.

Night sky with milky way and huge amount of stars.

After an evening of good campfire food, storytelling and singing we were finally allowed to find some flat spot for our sleeping bags. Somehow, I ended up sleeping next to a cute red-headed girl. We laid there staring up at the clear Colorado skies as dozens of shooting stars streaked across the mysterious expanse every minute.

What I remember about my childhood was that I loved the community and the fellowship of my church family, but I felt especially close to God that night under the stars in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. I went into ministry largely because those church camp experiences gave me a thirst for God that has dogged me all these years.

We are so accustomed to thinking that shaping a person’s Christian spiritual life needs to come in the form of weekly worship and Bible studies. But the truth is that the most transformative and formative experiences are often found in those once in a lifetime or once every year type of activities.

The Weird Church authors highlight two forms of the emerging church that reflect this model—pilgrimage and one that they are calling “same time next year.”

I share these two models because some of you are asking, “How are we going to connect with the dozens of people who became extensions of our congregation during the pandemic through our online offerings?”

Mecca
Muslim pilgrims arriving at Mecca

Pilgrimages are often once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For Catholics walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain is the ultimate religious experience. Every Muslim is mandated to go to Mecca once in their lifetime. At a critical juncture in my own life, I set up my own pilgrimage—a ten-week, 4,000-mile cycling route that connected me to all the places I had lived. Our own Brett Webb-Mitchell, pastor of the Community of Pilgrims, has completed many pilgrimages around the world and is the author of three books on the subject. The Presbytery of the Cascades is now embarking on establishing a pilgrimage route along the 352-mile Oregon Coast Trail. Pilgrimage is now back in vogue.

“Same time next year” is the title that Weird Church authors give those camp-like experiences that many of us remember from our childhood. They are the camps that we return to every summer or fall where we see the same people. They are the retreats that participants book months in advance and eventually become like family reunions. Ghost Ranch in New Mexico is known for their “same time next year” church communities as well as Companions on the Inner Way.

The pandemic has been brutally tough, but it has also exposed some new opportunities that we couldn’t see before.

  • What if your church contracted with a person who was just responsible for planning and organizing those once-in-a-lifetime and “same-time-next-year” church activities?
  • What if you had one person who concentrated on discovering and meeting the spiritual needs of those people who, because of distance or lack of interest, would rarely show up for Sunday services, but might consider other formats?
  • What if your church reached out to those whose spiritual development is best met by providing opportunities for an intensive week-long experience rather than to a year’s worth of worship services? (In other words, those who would commit 168 hours (the hours in a week) to an intensive experience rather than 52 hours to one-hour weekly experiences.)

I don’t remember a single worship service from my childhood despite having attended hundreds of them. But I do remember that one night at church horse camp sleeping under the stars watching a magnificent meteor light show, and sharing it with a cute red-headed girl. My thirst for God started there.

God is not limited to one hour on Sunday. God sometimes shows up in those once-in-a-lifetime moments and never goes away.

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

A “Bridge” Generation?

Scott DelgarnoNOTE: Last week I wrote about my hunch that those of us in the church today will be known as the “letting go generation.” Here is a similar reflection by the Rev. Scott Delgarno, poet and pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Beaverton, Oregon.

“How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?”

Questions from Psalm 137 “For Such a Time as This”

“By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Exiled by the pandemic from familiar churchly ways, we, too, remember the past and long to restore a recalled normalcy. Psalm 137 belongs to a canon of Scripture which centers on return and restoration of the community, of Jerusalem, of temple, of a retrieved normality.

What happened? A few eventually returned; most stayed in Babylonia. Restoration remained an ideal throughout Jewish history, the touchstone of many new normalities. What, then, will be our “new normal(s)?”  Can reflection on Psalm 137 give us any help as we struggle to resolve the uncertainty?

We are currently asking ourselves, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this moment of transition with the self-abandonment that singing calls up in us?” Is the fact that some of us are singing with masks on a metaphor for where we are?

 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!

Judahite exiles in Babylonia faced the reality of what they had lost, what they might forget, and the odds against the survival of their culture. While those who “remembered Zion” might long for it, what of their children and grandchildren? For the young, a return to Zion would mean exile. What a dangerous time the transitional adult generation faced. They risked losing their sense of themselves – unless they found a way to preserve something of “home” in exile,  something that would last longer than the cedar paneling of their temple back in Jerusalem lying in ashes.

According to Jeremiah, “false” prophets said the exile would be short. Once the reality of the situation set in, the Judahites’ chief emotion became anger.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

There’s a lot of anger today. How does one get beyond anger or harness it for good?  Could opportunities to address racial injustices be at hand? Could vaccinated and vaccine-wary Christians find common ground?

On the pandemic plus side, we have found that our sense of the boundaries of our parishes has grown exponentially. We are not confined by the size of our buildings or rubrics and expectations that fenced us in before. Is this something we are embracing or are we hoping it will pass away? Longing for the old ways is strong in us.  What would it mean to “build houses and live in them” in this new land? (Jeremiah 29:5)

Walter Brueggemann (whom Patrick Miller has edited) has said, “[The] Old Testament is, to a great extent, a book of poetry because it brings its reading community close to the extremity of a God who refuses to be boxed in by conventional expectations or reduced to conventional formulation.”  He adds, “Poetry [is] an invitation to live, ever more daringly into the extremity, to embrace the freedom required in the extremity, and to accept the responsibility for engaging the extremity of risk and danger.”

If this is true, will the church embrace the responsibility that comes with the present moment?  Will we think outside our steepled boxes of tradition and creed?  If so, how?  If “Jerusalem” was no longer a possibility, what would it mean for us to …

set Jerusalem above my highest joy?

The Judahite exiles did this by eventually letting go of “Zion” as a physical address.  They became a people of a book, making the Torah the touchstone of their faith and identity; something “neither moth nor rust can destroy, nor thieves break in and steal.”

Recent research into cuneiform sources for Judahites in Babylonia in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods (Pearce and Wunsch, Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia …) greatly enhances our awareness that a community of Judahites continued in Mesopotamia for generations beyond the return of some to Jerusalem.

We can imagine, then, that several different manifestations of “church” will probably survive –

1) going back to pre-Covid church with no online presence; 2) leaving the brick and mortar church for a fully online presence; 3) adopting a hybrid approach.

What other manifestations of church may be “slouching toward” newness at this time?

What of God might emerge from the elders among us in such a time of transition, realizing we are a bridge generation, having once thought we knew so much about being church?

 

Lent and Letting Go

Ten years ago after I had returned from my 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage through the Western United States I gave a presentation at the presbytery meeting held at Corvallis, First. I remember saying, “I am convinced that when history looks back at this time that we will be known as the “letting go generation.”

I am pondering the themes of Lent along with the dozens of conversations I have had with church leaders over recent months. I am struck by how most of these conversations are sounding eerily the same. Repeatedly I hear, “Brian, we are concerned about where we are going to be ____ years into the future.” The question has been the same. The only variable has been the number of months or years I hear.

lessLent is traditionally a time when we are encouraged to “give up” something in order to make more room in our lives for God’s presence. Quite often, it means giving up that morning coffee as we learn to rely on the high of God’s spirit rather than on piping hot stimulants. Truly dedicated religious adherents will fast during one meal a day and use that extra time for prayer. Some will give up wine or beer for the 40-day period and donate the savings to a food pantry or local mission.

The point is that Lent has been that season of the Christian year where we make room for God by clearing out the extraneous, excessive, unnecessary and overly consumptive behaviors of our lives. We Americans love to cure our ailments and satisfy our desires by adding more and doing more. Lent combats that tendency toward over-indulgence by asking us to slim down, downsize, give up and let go.

As I have met with churches, I am convinced that this season of Lent is not just a good spiritual discipline, but the call of our time. Phyllis Tickle, author, book publisher and journalist was famous for saying that the Church, every 500 years, needs to go through a massive ecclesiastical, institutional rummage sale. In some ways I believe she meant it as a metaphor, but I wonder if we need to take her advice literally. I have had too many conversations with churches who seem to be paralyzed by the clutter of the past.

I think I know why.

rummage saleRummage sales are wonderfully liberating, but they also require that uncomfortable stage of being able to let go of stuff that reminds us of a glorious past. In our families, we buy bigger houses in order to store the growing amount of saved furniture, unused appliances, memories from the past and family heirlooms. In our congregations, we hold onto outdated children’s curriculum, old unused hymnals, memorial gifts, and even raggedy furniture that holds sentimental value. More importantly, we hold onto assumptions and expectations that keep us trapped in the past.

Lent is about making room for God. And making room for God requires giving up ideas, stuff and useless attachments. Lent requires us to upgrade and replace our stuff to fit today’s context and tomorrow’s hopes.

ash wednesday 2Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise to us. The story of Lent begins with the words, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3: 19) and continues through a 40-day period of giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go, giving up, letting go…

dying and…

resurrection!

We are resurrection people and, for a time, the letting go generation.

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

Church as Demonstration Project

“The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World.”

That is the Sixth Great End of the Presbyterian Church. I am not sure exactly what the kingdom of heaven looks like although I have attempted to preach into that theme for over thirty years. But I have a pretty clear sense of what an exhibition is.

exhibitGoogle tells me that an exhibition is a display or a demonstration. Honestly, the word caught me by surprise a little. I have focused on the “kingdom of heaven” part of this phrase for years assuming that the phrase was pointing to the subject of our preaching and the character of our community. But I completely missed the fact that exhibitions, displays and demonstrations are activities that are done for the benefit of others.

It feels almost seems like a conflict in character. Much of religious teaching focuses on the need for humility in character and not doing things for show. Christians often frown on behaviors that are exhibitionist in quality attracting attention just for the sake of being seen. Yet, here in our Sixth Great End the action part of the phrase invites us to become an exhibition to the world, to display our Christian character so that others will see it and to demonstrate what the kingdom of heaven looks like.

It got me thinking about demonstration projects and the nature of church in this time. I wondered if this Sixth Great End was just thing that we all need to hear. I wondered if this one word might break through the paralysis that haunts so many of our churches who feel frozen by the annual announcements of church decline.

demonstration gardenI wonder if we all need to start thinking about ourselves as demonstration projects. You know what I mean? Demonstration projects are experimental projects where specific ideas, approaches and methods are played out for the purpose of seeing what we can learn from them. I have seen a number of environmental demonstration projects and I enjoy meandering through them reading the signs that describe the philosophy and tell me what I am seeing. I like that they are invitations to think differently and, potentially, act differently.

Before the pandemic we in the presbytery started using the two phrases “innovation lab” and “innovation playground” to guide the vision of the presbytery to its future. The whole idea was to loosen the presbytery up for creativity, experimentation, and a playfulness that would release us from the ongoing seriousness, worry and anxiety that has weighed us down in recent years.

Of course, that was all before the pandemic. My mood changed and the presbytery mood changed after that. Encouraging a light-hearted playfulness in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, political turmoil, social unrest, and natural disasters was irresponsible at best, cruel at worst.

But the intention of that playful experimentation is exactly what this Sixth Great End is about. Not only are we supposed to be embodying the kingdom of heaven, we are to be doing it as a demonstration to the world. And demonstration projects take a commitment to creativity, experimentation and a playful openness.

  • They require us to take our best ideals and find new and innovative ways to live those ideals out.
  • They require us to lay the usual conventions aside in favor of unconventional, re-imagined approaches that align with our values.
  • They require us to worry less about whether people will like us and more about whether people will learn something from us.

I like the idea of thinking of our Christian communities as demonstration projects.

Good demonstration projects don’t get bigger; they just get copied.

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

Kissing Cousins

“For many years I have had a Spiritual and Political need to be involved in the Gun Safety Movement…” Herman

“To believe and proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” is both a spiritual and political act.” Gary

These were two of the comments from my last blog where I asked the question about the line between what is spiritual and what is political. This has been an area of interest for me ever since I changed my college major from political science to religion over four decades ago.

Dictionary definition of legislation

I entered college with the intent to study political science with the hope of serving our country in some elected position. I loved the studies, but after taking a couple of religion courses I discovered that something seemed to be missing for me in my political science classes. There was an added element present in the religion courses that intrigued me—an ideology based on a universal Sacred presence (something we call theology).

The interesting thing was that I discovered that political science and religion essentially dealt with the same basic human questions. Political science is rooted in the concept of the “polis” which is the Greek word for the city/state. Political science is the arena where one develops an ideology or philosophy about how society should be ordered, what behaviors are approved and barred, and what values govern the people of the polis.

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Religion comes from the Latin word “religio” which translates “to tie or to bind.” In other words, religion deals with the values that connect us to each other, to nature and to a Sacred reality that we Christians refer to as God. Both political science and religion have to do with how we relate to each other and the world.

I never lost my love for political science. In fact, over the years I have become deeply involved in city planning co-chairing a 30-year vision initiative for Portland, sitting on the City Charter Council, and being an alternate county commissioner. I did this while also serving as a pastor. For me it was not like splitting my time between two different worlds; it was doing the same work in two different settings.

I do believe that every church has to decide how involved they want to be in issues that clearly cross into the political realm. I don’t believe that every church has to do it the same way or to the same degree. But I also believe that one cannot separate spirituality from politics. Spirituality without politics is like love without commitment.

I do believe that there is a place where one can retreat from the chaotic world of politics—on retreat, in meditation, snowshoeing in the mountains, getting lost in music, and enjoying a soulful sunset. But in a tradition that prides itself on the “Preaching of the Word” it is impossible to have a sermon that is purely spiritual.

BLMIf a pastor preaches a general sermon about “Loving your neighbor as yourself” it is generally seen as spiritual. As soon as that same pastor gets specific—LGBTQIA, Muslim, tattooed, homeless, BIPOC—it suddenly sounds political and over the line to some.

My friends, politics and religion are like kissing cousins. Both address the most basic questions of how we relate to each other, how we behave toward each other, and the values that connect us.

The only way to be spiritual without also being political is to become a hermit. And that, in itself, is a political act.

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