Fragile and Fertile

“Fragile and Fertile”

Those are the words that keep showing up in my notes to churches as I end my greetings with something along the lines of “Know that my prayers are with you in this fragile and fertile time.”

butterfly-transformationThe combination is intentional. Over the years, I have discovered that my most transformative work has occurred when working with people and congregations who find themselves in a fragile position. At the same time, some of my most difficult work has come in working with people and congregations who say they want growth and transformation, but who are essentially comfortable with the status quo. Getting change when people are essentially comfortable, even when they say they want change, is almost impossible!

gardenI remember the annual tradition from my childhood when I first learned about the relationship between fragility and fertility. My dad was locally famous for his over-sized garden in our small suburban backyard plot. My dad grew up on a farm and even when we moved to a cookie cutter neighborhood, he was not able to part with the large garden that supported his family of ten as a child. That garden (that really was the envy of the neighbors) took up over a third of our backyard and was 900 square feet of corn, beans, radishes, lettuce, squash, kohlrabi, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, peas, carrots, beets, and strawberries.

But I dreaded the spring every year as I my dad drug me out of bed Saturday mornings to till the soil. Shovelful by shovelful we turned over that soil, broke it up and took what was a hard concrete-like bed of soil and turned it into a rich crumbly layer of earth ready act like a womb for waiting seeds. Only later did he learn that a rototiller was just as effective and took one-tenth of the time. But he didn’t discover that in time for me to enjoy lazy Saturday mornings in bed.


I remember to this day that lesson from the earth. Had we tried to plant seeds in the non-receptive hardened soil that emerged from winter snows very few of the seeds my dad threw out would have sprouted. It was only after loosening up the soil, breaking up the clods, and creating a fragile and fertile bed of soil did we have a garden where seeds would grow and sprout and produce. That rich culture of summer goodness only emerged after breaking up the culture of hardened soil.

Of course, this isn’t news to those of us who rely on the stories of the Bible to guide us. The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 tells the same story. A farmer went out sow the annual seed. Some of the seed fell on hardened dirt (like the dirt in our garden every spring) and the birds quickly ate it. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground, sprouted quickly but withered in the sun. Some of the seed fell among the thorns and was choked out. Some of the seed fell on soil that had been tilled and broken up and it produced a garden just like my dad’s garden! Rich and full and abundant!

We all know that this is a fragile time. But in the same breath I cannot help but add that this is also a fertile time. I am convinced that the two go together. It was the lesson that I learned as a child as I was forced into the backbreaking work of tilling the soil shovelful by shovelful every spring. It was the lesson I learned in working with juvenile delinquents many years ago—the more fragile they felt about their lives the more they were open to growth and change. It was the lesson I learned in congregations—fragility and fertility almost always go hand in hand.

Know that my prayers are with you in the fragile time.

And know that I will help you take advantage of this fertile moment.

It’s important that we don’t let a good crisis go to waste.

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

The Language of Desire

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” Ephesians 5: 18

I always knew that debauchery wasn’t a quality to which one should aspire, but it wasn’t until I focused on this text that I actually took the time to get a clearer definition. “Debauchery—excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures.”

It was ironic that on the same day that I read this lectionary text from Ephesians that my morning meditation was from St. Teresa of Avila, a Christian mystic. The last stanza of her poem “The Sky’s Sheets” reads, “Any real ecstasy is a sign you are moving in the right direction. Don’t let any prude tell you otherwise.”

unhappy dogOh, Teresa! Those words can get you in trouble! Speaking of ecstasy in the church and calling those who raise their eyebrows at such juicy words, a prude? Eek! Those are fighting words in a denomination often teasingly referred to as the “Frozen Chosen.”

I almost wondered if St. Teresa was targeting the author of Ephesians, possibly even the apostle Paul himself, as being somewhat prudish. We all know that he has a reputation for warning people about the consequences of engaging in the “things of the flesh.” But I don’t think that St. Teresa was targeting Paul or whoever the author of Ephesians was.

At first blush, Ephesian’s reference to “being filled with the Spirit” may sound a bit tamer than St. Teresa’s pursuit of ecstasy, but I have a feeling that they are referring to the same intoxicating experience that comes with having a life-long love affair with God. I have a feeling that the unspoken assumption in Ephesians is that if you are going to act like a let-everything-hang-out-drunk, let it be because you are intoxicated with God’s Spirit rather than the spirits behind the bar.

I want to tease this out because I believe that St. Teresa of Avila is speaking to a modern sensibility—that is, that religious devotion isn’t about reigning in one’s passions (in order to avoid debauchery), but is about trusting and following one’s passions on the path to deep religious communion, connection and, yes, even ecstasy.

bicycle view of valleyIn recent years, I have found my own spiritual life shifting more toward the experience of the mystics. St. Teresa captures well the source of this shift. At one time, my faith was built on a sense of moral obligation to do what was right. Today, my faith is built more on the fruit of following my passions, listening to what my soul most deeply craves, and doing what I most want to do (I know this sounds rather selfish, but all creatures who are created in the image of God should trust a few selfish desires!).

This shift could be captured best by saying that I used follow the commandment to love God but now I have followed my heart and fallen in love with God. That latter description mirrors the language and experience of our tradition’s Christian mystics. It’s a simple little shift in words, but a seismic shift in how one approaches faith.

This last Sunday I saw these two worlds almost collide. I felt some obligation to attend one of the churches in our presbytery as part of my role as the presbyter, but the truth is, what my soul really craved was to be out on my bicycle touring the beautiful country roads along the Willamette River south of Corvallis.

church worshipI toyed with the idea of just riding and not going to church. It didn’t feel right. Then I toyed with the idea of going to church and not riding. That definitely didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until I discovered the mystical source of both that I had my answer. I knew that I wanted to ride my bike as I experience so much of God’s goodness while churning the pedals over hills, coasting through fields of alfalfa and hay, and gliding along the riverbanks as herons take flight. But I also found myself deeply wanting to join “my people” in church on Sunday as we journey together through life. I had to find my way beyond the language of obligation to the language of desire to find my answer.

With my new found discovery, I got up at 6 a.m., rode to Starbucks for a quick cup of coffee and breakfast, churned out a brisk forty miles on the bike and arrived at the 9:30 a.m. service all sweaty, stinky and dripping wet in my skin-tight Lycra shorts and fluorescent orange jersey. But I had done it. I had honored what my soul most deeply desired—to enjoy God’s goodness out on the isolated country roads on a cool morning AND to worship with my Presbyterian family (even if most kept a safe distance from this stinky worshiper!).

The author of Ephesians warns us not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Spirit. I think what he is saying is, “Get drunk on life. Get drunk on God. Drink from the well of love. Follow your passion. Seek ecstasy. Do what your soul most deeply desires.”

In other words, “Don’t be a prude!


“Little Sister” Stereotypes

“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” John 6: 42

Oh my, oh my, oh my!

little sisterI know this story all too well. I have a “little sister.” She was born almost exactly two years after me. In my mind, my little sister was always just a little bit behind me. She was born later. She was younger and smaller. She didn’t excel academically as I had. She didn’t get elected to school and club offices as I had. And, as a young adult, I didn’t stray nearly as far as she did from culturally approved behaviors.

This was the narrative I had crafted for my little sister. This was the stereotype I had settled on. This was the lens through which I interpreted my sister’s life, her choices and her behaviors. In my mind, she would always be my little sister, the one who lagged just a little behind me in every way.

laughing boy with bible“How could Jesus be marked with the heavenly seal,” his detractors seem to ask, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” Is not this that little boy we saw growing up who was wrestling in the mud with other boys, teasing the sheep, and playing adolescent pranks on his neighbors? Is not this that average little boy who grew up just down the street from us?

Isn’t it interesting how we create a narrative and a stereotype around people and then can only see them through that particular lens? I did that with my sister. Unfortunately, for many years my story of her didn’t change and grow, but she did. I was well into my thirties before the scales fell from eyes. One day I looked at her and realized, “I have a really amazing little sister! I can’t believe how strong, how courageous and how faithful she is.”

el salvadorI had thought of myself as being the more ambitious of the two and then one day I realized that while I was following the predictable path of school and work she was out changing the world. By the time I was in my second church she had spent six years as a missionary in El Salvador, raised three children on foreign soil, survived a civil war, and spent another four years in Paraguay building churches. Today she and her husband are building a “completely off the grid” underground house on eighty acres of land in northern Wisconsin. Quite honestly, she puts me to shame!

I share this story with you as I think about what the scripture has to say to our current context. I wonder how often we, like Jesus’ detractors and me as a big brother, fall into the trap of only seeing people through the stereotype and the narrative that we have created for them. We, in religious institutions, often settle on an lazy narrative and split the world into two easy camps—the churched and the unchurched.

skateboard girlBut is it possible that there might be a God-infused spirit in that unchurched person that challenges our default narrative to simply place them in the “unchurched” category? Is it possible that God is showing up in people and places that don’t fit the story that we have reserved for God? Is it possible that God is actually busy creating the kingdom with average people down the street, the son of Joseph, little sisters, the smiling checker at the grocery store, the panting runner who races past you every morning, and the fussy neighbor on the other side of the fence?

Is it possible that God’s world is bigger than our world?

Is it possible that our default narratives have more fiction than non-fiction in them?

Is it possible that God just laughs at our “little sister” stereotypes?

Stay Thirsty My Friends

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6: 35

“Wait a minute,” I thought, “Why would Jesus want to take away our thirst while the psalmist encourages our thirst?”

deer at waterI have to admit that my thoughts immediately went to Psalm 42 when I read our gospel lesson for this Sunday from John. Psalm 42 begins with these words, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

These verses have become some of my favorite lines of the whole Bible in recent years. If, at one time, I was content with my knowledge of God, today I am a jumbled mess of yearning and thirsting and hungering for God. My faith is less marked by certain and solid beliefs than it is with a deep, aching hunger to experience God in all God’s fullness.

sunsetIt is an unquenchable thirsting for God that is at the core of my Christian faith. My mind can be content with exercises in belief, but my soul is often a swirling pot of discontent, yearning, wanting and aching. It’s as if I can never get enough–not enough of God; not enough sunrises and sunsets; not enough squeezes with grandchildren; not enough pure goodness, robust laughter and sacred presence; not enough of the really good stuff.

“Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” promises Jesus, and I want to plead, “Please don’t take my thirst away! Please don’t make me satisfied with the blandness of our world! Please don’t dim my ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness!’”

On this issue, I am closer to the sentiment of The Most Interesting Man in the World who, while holding a bottle of Dos Equis, encourages us to “Stay thirsty my friends.” It’s great marketing, but not bad spiritual advice.

Jesus reassures us, “If you believe in me I will take away your hunger and your thirst” and then just as reassuringly offers in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness….” I want to ask him, “Do you want us to thirst or not!”

Mr. RogersThis past weekend I joined a movie group to see the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” about Mr. Rogers (a good Presbyterian pastor!). I am not ashamed to admit that I wept through much of the movie. During the group’s discussion over dinner, I shared my experience of weeping through much of the movie and found myself saying, “I think what struck me most about the movie was the contrast between Mr. Roger’s pure authentic goodness and the reality of our world today. I think my tears were clearly tears of grief over our current political and social climate.”

I was thirsting and yearning for a more innocent time. I was grieving over a lost world. I was hungering for more evidence of a Mr. Roger’s kind of goodness.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” says Jesus in Matthew and the psalmist echoes his words, saying, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Thirst is important. Desire is necessary. Spiritual aching is a sign of health. Hunger is part of the journey.

Yes, someday we will fully meet the Jesus of John’s gospel, and our thirst will be quenched and our hunger will be satisfied. Until then…

“Stay thirsty my friends.” Stay thirsty. Don’t get too satisfied with the world as it is.

“And all of us will worship”

“Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.” John 6: 3

“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” John 6: 15

Mt. EverestA year ago I was just a few weeks from flying off to the Himalayas to study the place that mountains play in religious literature and religious experience. My goal was to ride to Everest Base Camp on my mountain bike with six other adventurous souls.

It doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to recognize that mountains play a significant role in the Bible: Mt. Sinai where the Ten Commandments were received; Mt. Tabor, the apparent site of the Transfiguration; the Sermon on the Mount; and Mt. Zion, among many others. Mountains also play a significant role in Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Islam, and Native American mythologies.

Unfortunately (or maybe, fortunately) the Everest trip became an exercise in survival rather than an opportunity to sit back and study religious experience and literature. The fires in Southern Oregon last summer where I was living at the time completely halted my training a month before, the smoke created an allergic reaction and an ear infection, my bike and equipment didn’t show up in Nepal, and then in my weakened state I ended up with altitude sickness. I did reach my destination, Everest Base Camp, but was physically and psychologically crushed and had no room for the luxury of continuing education research!

But I digress. The gospel lesson for this coming Sunday very casually mentions that Jesus retreated to the mountains twice in the short span of this text—once to be with his disciples and once to get away from everyone else to enjoy some solitude.

What is it about the experience of mountains that seems to find its way into our religious literature? What is about them that draws us to their lofty grandeur in search of spiritual nourishment and sacred experience?

Lake Shot Cascades
The scene at Sparks Lake on the Cascades Lakes Highway

As many of you know, I spent much of July on vacation and one full week in the Cascade Range. On one of the magical hikes walking next to a glacier-fed stream while gazing at a snow-covered volcanic peak, I remember thinking, “This is worship. This is as rich as any Sunday morning experience in church.” When I returned from vacation, I looked up the word worship to see if there was some connection between my revelation that day and the generally accepted definition of worship. I discovered that there was!

One definition was that worship is “the feeling or experience of reverence or adoration…” That was it. What I had felt that day was deep reverence for the beauty of the Cascades, gratitude for the richness of life, adoration for the Maker who was responsible for all this goodness, and pure awe for a landscape that defied normal explanation.

Canyon Creek Cascades
On Three-Fingered Jack overlooking the Canyon Creek Meadows

It gave me a little greater understanding of the spirituality of the Pacific Northwest. It is not uncommon to hear from our religiously unaffiliated family, friends and neighbors that they “meet God on the trail” or while sitting on a rock overlooking civilization 4,000 feet below. Our Pacific Northwest neighbors often say they are “spiritual but not religious” meaning that they find the Sacred in places other than a church building and often in the forests, along the streams, and on top of a mountain.

We are a people who base our lives on a Biblical narrative that witnesses to the presence of God in Jesus Christ.

Some of us this Sunday will go to church to hear about this Jesus withdrawing to the mountain to be by himself. Some of us will just go to the mountain.

And all of us will worship.

The Universal Language

This is the third of three blog posts reflecting on the presbytery and on the General Assembly. I will return to following the lectionary on my July 26 post after I return from vacation.

There is so much that could be shared about the 223nd General Assembly in St. Louis. I am thankful that our commissioners have already stepped into that role with a report to the presbytery, an open space conversation, and a commitment to put a resource list together of the many actions of the General Assembly.

Kachu preaching
The Rev. Ekram Kachu

I just want to share and reflect on one moment, one of the very last moments of the entire General Assembly. The preacher for our closing worship was a woman who was originally from South Sudan and had been ordained only three weeks before as the pastor of First Arabic Presbyterian Church in Waukee, Iowa, just outside of Des Moines.

The Rev. Ekram Kachu had some insightful words to share about being a praying people and trusting God in difficult times. She received a knowing laugh when she spoke of how hard it was to found a non-English speaking church in our tradition, saying, “It’s easier to get to heaven than to be a Presbyterian.” We all chuckled at both the humor and the truth of her comment.

But the moment I really want to share with you is when the Rev. Kachu presided over the Lord’s Table as we all joined together for Communion one last time before boarding flights to destinations all over the world. Quite honestly, the Communion liturgy was fairly traditional. What made it unique was that she decided to offer the words of institution in her native tongue, Sudanese.

breadAs she recited the words, “On the night of Jesus’ arrest…” in Sudanese and broke the bread I was suddenly overtaken by the realization that the universal language is the breaking of bread and the drinking from the cup. I did not recognize any of the words that she was speaking even though I knew exactly what she was saying. But as she spoke in her native tongue I realized that even if she had stood up there completely silent I would have gotten the message. If she had only stood up there, lifted up the loaf, paused for a moment, looked at us with knowing eyes and then broke the bread, I would have heard the message loud and clear. It is the breaking of bread that pulls us together. It is supping from the common loaf and the shared cup that is the universal language.

Last week I attended a lunch meeting to bring Oregon faith leaders together around a new initiative titled The Common Table. The initiative is largely to bring people who are divided along political, social and theological lines together as we negotiate our way through this deeply partisan and divisive time. As we talked about finding our way through this we discovered that even the most basic assumptions that have unified us are now open to question. We dug deeper to find something that could unify us. Finally, the one of my respected colleagues from another tradition spoke up and named it, “We have to start with this—what we are doing today—simply breaking bread together. It is the table that pulls us together.”

I didn’t recognize a single word of the Rev. Ekram Kachu, but I knew the language. I knew the language of breaking bread, sharing the cup, and coming together around a table.

That, my friends, is the universal language.

That, my friends, is our gift to a hurting and divided world.

When a Bridge is not a Bridge

The is the second of three posts reflecting on the presbytery and the General Assembly. I will return to following the lectionary for my July 26 post after I return from vacation.

This post is the result of seeing the following picture at The Way Forward Committee at the General Assembly as they wrestled with the current structure of the General Assembly.

The Choluteca Bridge in Honduras

This is a picture of the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras. This bridge was an engineering feat. Because of the drastic weather, hurricanes and floods that sometimes ravage Honduras this bridge was built to endure even the worst of hurricanes. It took two years to build it and only a few hours to make it useless. It was built between 1996 and 1998. Shortly after it was built in 1998 Hurricane Mitch swept violently across the country causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and killing over 7,000 people. It was a Category 5 hurricane–as bad as they come.

But there was good news. The Choluteca Bridge stood the test. After the winds had died down, the rain stopped and the floods dissipated this bridge was one of the only bridges to still be standing completely in tact. The engineers had accomplished a great feat. They had designed a structure that could take the worst that nature could dish out and still stand proud.

But the engineers, despite their ingenuity and brilliance, had not quite outsmarted Mother Nature. They had figured out to how to keep a bridge from tumbling, but they had not figured out how to keep the river from carving a new path. The bridge, which had for a few months allowed people to cross from one side of the river to the other side, now was a bridge that started nowhere and ended nowhere.

But, damn! It sure was a beautiful bridge!

June 29-30 PVM Report to Presbytery

This is the first of three posts reflecting on the presbytery and the General Assembly while I am vacation. I will return to following the lectionary on the July 26 post after I return to the office.

Report to the Presbytery at the June 29-30 stated meeting at First, Salem.

I would like to start by sharing a story I heard during The Way Forward Committee Meeting at this year’s General Assembly in St. Louis.

Apparently, a reporter had asked Desmond Tutu how he had ever come up with a plan to end apartheid in South Africa. Tutu smiled and said, “There was no plan. All we had was a destination and a commitment to start walking.” I share this story with you because I think it reflects this time that we live in as well as how I have been approaching my position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. What I am going to report is really just what I have learned from committing to walk our way into a new future.

As of this date I have met with sixty-three of our ninety-six churches. There are another six that I met with prior to this particular wave of visits. I have ten more churches scheduled in July, August and September and another eighteen to still schedule sometime in the fall.

If there has been one thing that has become abundantly clear and that ties us together as the Presbytery it is this: We are a Matthew 25 kind of presbytery and church. Everywhere I have gone, whether small or large, progressive or conservative, all of our churches are marked by a particular commitment to serving “the least among us.”

  • Gold Beach, on the southern Oregon coast is a small congregation yet every week they serve a soup lunch to the vulnerable of their community;
  • There are international missions by churches such as First, Bend; Columbia, Vancouver; and Lake Grove that serve vulnerable communities and populations in Syria, Senegal and Gautamala;
  • Grace in Portland has two dozen or so on Sundays yet they make and deliver forty lunches every Sunday to Prescott Terrace, a transitional housing facility near the church;
  • Central, Eugene and First, Cottage Grove have invested deeply in supporting the homeless through investments in actual housing projects, and;
  • Dozens of our churches provide space to groups and agencies that specifically reach out to “the least of these.”

I have also discovered something about my role. Although it already could have been assumed by reading between the lines of my job description it has become abundantly clear to me that my  role will be to “help the presbytery and our churches negotiate an almost certain (and maybe radical) shift in how we embody Christian spiritual community.” While I do not yet have a clear vision of the future at this point I can tell you that I am getting some glimpses. I have visited enough churches to see some patterns, hear some common concerns and hopes, and catch a glimpse of the kind of questions that will point our way to the future. Here are some themes that I will be following up on in coming months:

  1. I have met with a number of congregations that are asking questions about how they organize themselves and how to honor our polity while they deal with the reality that half of their active participating congregants are not actually “on-the-rolls” members;
  2. A number of congregations are specifically focusing on the question, “How does the specific context of being in the Pacific Northwest affect our ministry commitments and priorities?” These congregations are wondering what it means to serve those who might refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or check the box “None” with regard to religious affiliation on the census.
  3. A number of our congregations have more building than they do ministry. I will be following up with them with conversations about how their building could be viewed as one of their greatest assets for ministry and how it could be re-purposed to serve the community in which they are located;
  4. A couple of congregations are looking a decade down the road and asking, “Could the future be buildingless congregations? Do we need to start planning and preparing for that?” I will be wanting to listen to the conversation and discernment going on in these congregations;
  5. More than half of our congregations are expressing a desire to have some presence and impact on the affordable housing crisis that has left almost no area of Oregon untouched. This is a good opportunity for us to develop partnerships and look to our ecumenical, non-profit and public private partners to solve this issue together;
  6. With the passage of the Vacant Properties Task Force report I will be working directly with our New Ministries Team and the Trustees. We have an amazing opportunity to now imagine and re-imagine potential ministries either utilizing the sites of vacant properties or directing the proceeds from the sale of the properties to re-imagined new ministries and the re-vitalization of our present congregations;
  7. There are a number of our congregations that are negotiating the shifts of their communities quite well. I will want to meet with them, learn from them and find ways to share their stories with the full presbytery.

The third thing that I have discovered is that we are going to have to do this together. I tend to be a person who will shoulder a lot of responsibility, but as I have met with our congregations and gotten a taste of the opportunities and challenges ahead of us I have had to admit to myself, “There is no way I can do this on my own! This is too big for little ole’ me!” This is my way of asking for help. I will promise to walk with you, guide you, support you, pray for you, and try to ask the right questions, but in the end we will need to grab hands and take this journey together—which, it shouldn’t surprise us, sounds pretty Presbyterian.

Finally, let me make a personal plea. The last few days have been troubling to me as it has for many of you as well. If it is true that we are a Matthew 25 kind of church and presbytery then one verse of Matthew 25 is particularly shouting at us right now. Jesus said, “When you welcomed the stranger, you welcomed me.” What I want to encourage you to do is to go back to every one of your congregations and wrestle with this text. I am less interested in where you come out than I am in your intention to sit with this text, pray about it, and listen for what God is saying to you about your commitment to “the stranger and the alien” in your midst.

I truly believe that we are in this moment where history is going to judge us by what we choose to do or choose not to do in this time. God is watching. The community is watching. Go back to your congregations and decide what this text means for you and your congregation, for your neighborhood, for your community and for your national commitments.

I want to express my gratitude for our staff. We have a great group of people who are committed, creative, bright and flexible. I look forward to continuing to work with them in coming years. And again, thank you for the privilege of being able to serve you.

May God bless our unfolding journey.

Eagerness and Energy

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has…in order that there may be a fair balance.” 2 Corinthians 8: 12-14

I have titled this short little blog “Eagerness and Energy.” As I said when I first started this Holy Breadcrumbs weekly blog I would write my way into the evolving vision of our presbytery by reflecting weekly on the common lectionary and on the conversations I am having as I visit our various churches. This week’s blog is a perfect example of that approach. I am taking my reflections on “eagerness” from the text from 2 Corinthians and my reflections on “energy” from my church visits.

coin in handI think it is a common understanding among Biblical scholars that the context for this text is an encouragement by the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth to make an offering to the church in Jerusalem in their time of need. But Paul is not just appealing to the Corinthians to do everything they can (and more) to support their Jerusalem brothers and sisters. He is saying, “Look at their need, look at your need and make an offering that honors both fairly.”

There has been much criticism of the American church over the years that we have not given to our brothers and sisters around the world in a way that honors that “fair balance” that Paul is talking about. We have had the luxury of giving out of our abundance, but in a way that requires little of our substance. I do think this is a well-earned criticism. It has been too easy for many of us to simply write a check, pat ourselves on the back, but have no taste of the deprivation or suffering of our brothers and sisters.

peeling paintBut I also think times have changed. And one of the dynamics that I have observed in many of our churches is that their eagerness to do mission has outpaced their energy to do mission. This is certainly not true for every congregation. Many of our congregations could probably do much more and some of our congregations have found that sweet spot of matching “eagerness and energy.”

This blog is not for those congregations. This blog is for those congregations who would love to do a lot more in their neighborhoods and with their community. This blog is for those congregations who have a real eagerness for mission, but simply don’t have the energy and resources to keep pace with their hopes and dreams and wants. This blog is for those congregations who actually may have just as much need as those they want to serve.

This blog is a reminder from Paul himself who didn’t say, “Give everything you have and more,” but rather said, “Look at their need, look at your need and give in a way that there may be a fair balance.”

man in churchI really like this Pauline approach to giving. It reminds those churches who are rich in abundance and energy that in a world of suffering and deprivation that they may be called to dig deep and feel the pinch in their pocketbook. And it is a reminder to those congregations who struggle to pay the monthly bills that the gap between their need and the needs of their community may be much narrower. Giving must honor the needs of others, but also must honor the resources of ourselves.

In plain speak this blog is a reminder to those churches who just don’t have the same energy and resources that they once had twenty, thirty and forty years ago. I know that your eagerness to give and to serve and to love is great. I also know that you are showing some signs of weariness.

Listen to Paul. He is a wise one here. Look at the needs of your community. And be honest about your own needs. Give and serve and love in a way that honors what they need and what you have.

Be careful not to give too little. Be careful not to give too much.

Trust that God will bless the gift–however great or small.

“Help! I Can’t Move!”

‘Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.’

I have images in my mind of a young, wiry-framed boy named David loaded down with armor meant for a much older, stronger and more muscle bound soldier. Of course, I do not know for sure that David was as slight as my mind portrays him. But I do know that Saul called him a boy and when Goliath looked at him “he disdained him because he was only a youth.

More importantly, the contrast between David and Goliath is glaringly apparent. Goliath is described as being either “four cubits and a span” or “six cubits and a span” depending on the translation one uses. Either way we have a man whose stature is somewhere between an average-sized NBA center and the larger than life sculpture of a Greek god. In other words, he’s a real life giant!

What really struck me, however, was not the difference between Goliath and David so much as the brave moment of vulnerability when David shed the armor that had been provided him. With only minor paraphrasing we have this shepherd boy exclaiming out loud, “Help! I can’t move! How can I face this giant if I can’t move. Get this stuff off of me!”

St. Louis arch
Arriving in St. Louis

I think I heard it put most succinctly when our stated clerk, the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, spoke to the Way Forward Committee. In a moment of exceptional clarity he said that what the PCUSA must do is shift “from an institutional bureaucracy to a movement culture.”  A movement culture! Isn’t that beautiful? Thinking of the church not as an ecclesiastical institution, but as a movement. That I can live into. That I can preach. That I can fall in love with again.

And isn’t that what the shepherd boy, David, was saying, “If I am going to slay the giants of this world I have to be able to move! I can’t be burdened with too much stuff. I need to feel free and liberated to deal with the issues in front of me!”

Speaking of feeling liberated I heard a great story this week. I was speaking with my counterpart in Sacramento Presbytery about this General Assembly meeting and the language around shedding much of the structure in order to focus again on ministry. My friend shared with me the story of one of the congregations in his presbytery that took the big leap to shed the excess armor and structure of their church building. This church was built for 600 members, but this past year it had withered down to a mere 35 members.

St. Louis justice center
Marching with hundreds of others to the St. Louis Justice Center to present $47,000 on behalf of the EndCashBail movement.

It was finally decided that they would ask the presbytery to allow them to sell their building and work with the Presbyterian Foundation to set up an endowment for further ministry. My friend had expected a presbytery meeting filled with grief. What he experienced, however, was a group of people who felt liberated and spoke of renewed hope. After decades of wrestling with building repairs and maintenance they spoke of how this decision enabled them to once again dream, focus again on mission, and renew their hope for the future.

What they were doing was mirroring David’s comments to Saul, “I can’t walk. I can’t move. I can’t do ministry with all this armor. This structure is killing me.”

Structure is not a bad thing. But structure should always support mission and ministry, not weigh it down.

Just ask David.

Just look at the dead Goliath.