When Serving Is Just the Beginning

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

Eek! That language needs to be changed!

I was having a conversation during the fellowship time after worship with one of our more involved ruling elders in the presbytery. In the middle of the conversation, she quickly apologized and abruptly left saying, “I am kind of a stickler for language. I need to catch this man while he is here.” Five minutes later she came back and showed me what had felt so urgent. She was holding the draft of a brochure that had on the front in bold letters, “Serving the Community.” She had crossed out the words “Serving” and had inserted “Engaging with…”

She went on to explain that the word serving carried with it a subtle patronizing attitude. We in the educated, mainline Protestant, middle to upper middle-income churches just assume that we are the ones who should be serving as if we have something that those “less fortunate” than us desire, yearn for and even deserve.

white churchThis is tricky business. Because the truth is most of us in our Presbyterian churches have been blessed out of proportion to the rest of our society and certainly our world when it comes to material security and educational opportunities. I am reminded of the statistic that even the poorest Americans are still richer than about 90% of the rest of the world. Which means the typical Presbyterian is sinfully rich by world standards.

So I understand this almost automatic assumption that it is our duty, our obligation, our Christian calling to “serve and not to be served.” To be as well-off as we are without a sense that we owe some of our time, a portion of our resources and our compassion for others less well-off would be sinful and shameful.

But I think my friend, our faithful ruling elder, is on to something. This issue was important enough to her that she almost ran away from our conversation mid-sentence to make sure that she made the point that her church’s messaging to the community was not about “serving,” but “engaging with the community.”

Sunnyside HouseI immediately got what she was saying. The night before I was participating in the Annual Spring Concert of the Portland Peace Choir, a group I joined this last November. Our theme this year was “Home.” One of our members staffs the Sunnyside Warming Shelter in SE Portland and she suggested that with the theme of home we should consider partnering with the Sunnyside Community House (A United Methodist Ministry). Look at the language that she used. Not serving the clients of Sunnyside, but partnering with.

Last Saturday the Portland Peace Choir and the Sunnyside Community House performed together a repertoire of songs about home and belonging. PPC sang a set, then four of the houseless Sunnyside clients performed solo pieces on various instruments, and PPC sang another set of songs like “You Inspire Me” and “Show Me Love.”

Then came the finale.

The Sunnyside clients joined us up front as we sang together “Home” by Greg Holden and Drew Pearson—the thirty members of the PPC choir rocking and singing on risers and the four Sunnyside clients accompanying us on piano, guitar and drums (or should I say that they were playing and the choir provided the back up voices!). There it was, “engaging WITH the community.” I know our choir was served just as much as we served them. Together, the housed and houseless, performed a concert about what it meant to “be home.”

homeless guitar player
One of the many “Matt’s” on the street.

It was especially poignant for me because a few days before our performance I was forced to accept what a gift we had been given by the Sunnyside Community House clients. “Matt” was one of the guitarists who accompanied us at our Wednesday night dress rehearsal. It was clear that given his circumstances that getting to a rehearsal was no easy task. He came in on a bike with a guitar over his shoulder and a little ragged from making the transition from street life to starring musician.

The next night I was on my way to a meeting when I came around a corner and saw a tent tucked neatly into the side entryway of a NE Portland business just a few feet from a busy thoroughfare. Next to the tent was a guitar in its protective black case. And emerging from the tent was “Matt” preparing his space for another night hidden in the shadows of Portland’s urban landscape.

Two nights later “Matt” and his friends and the Portland Peace Choir were singing together in a performance dedicated to the theme of home, belonging, connection, justice, and love.

Here is what I want to say.

MLK DreamThat night we all became preachers. We all became bearers of the message of home and belonging. That night we were all equals. That night no one was more fortunate or less fortunate. That night we were all brothers and sisters trying to find our way in this crazy, screwed up world. That night we all sang about home—some of us who live comfortably in our 4-bedroom houses and some of us who emerged from tents only hours before. We were a community—if only for a night.

I love that I am in a denomination committed to serving the community. But serving the community often carries with it an attitude of who is in and who is out, of who has all the goodies and who doesn’t, of who should be serving and who needs to be served.

Serving the community is wonderfully honorable.

Engaging with the community is a sign of God’s radically inclusive kingdom.

We are all God’s people whether we live in houses or tents.

We often serve out of our excess and abundance. We engage when we are ready to share our common humanity.

We are all in this together–everyone! I mean EVERYONE!

Cascades, you rock!

The Presbytery of the Cascades is especially a source of pride for me right now!

fuller center houseA few months ago the Fuller Center contacted me about one of their major fundraising programs. Their mission is to “build and repair homes in partnership with families in need.” This particular fundraiser is called the Fuller Center Bike Adventure.

This year they will sponsor two events—a 3,500-mile Seattle to D.C. trip and a 4,000-mile Parks and Peaks ride that begins and ends in Portland and includes the Redwoods, Yosemite, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, the Arches, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone an Glacier National Parks in an ambitious counter-clockwise circle through some of the most rugged terrain in the West. I took an immediate interest since I did a similar 4,000-mile bike ride in 2011 in the clockwise direction through much of the same territory. Like them my pedal pilgrimage began and ended in Portland.

This first week of their ambitious adventure travels completely within the bounds of Cascades Presbytery. When I talked to Connor, the tour organizer, I had this crazy idea: “What if Cascades could accommodate the twenty-five riders and their support team all eight nights that they were riding through Oregon?” At our March presbytery meeting I reported that four Cascades churches had already stepped up and I encouraged our churches in the remaining communities to consider hosting the riders.

AND YOU DID!

Lower Yellowstone Falls
Lower Yellowstone Falls, 2011

I am pleased to report that the Presbytery of the Cascades will be hosting the Fuller Center Bike Adventure tour EVERY night that they are in the bounds of our presbytery! I am especially pleased because as a touring cyclist myself I know how much I have appreciated it when churches and their members have hosted me after a long, sweaty day of cranking out 80 miles on the bike.

This is a shout-out to our congregations who will be hosting the Fuller Center Parks and Peaks Bike Adventure.

May 24               Colonial Heights, Portland

May 25               First, McMinnville

May 26               First, Salem

May 27               Chapel by the Sea, Lincoln City

May 28               Church of the Siuslaw, Florence

May 29               First, Bandon

May 30               First, Gold Beach

August 10           Westminster, Portland

But more than just a self-congratulatory note to us I want to use this opportunity to wonder out loud about whether we might be seeing the emergence of new forms of Christian community. I know what you are thinking, “How does a fun bike ride around the country qualify as Christian community?” But don’t dismiss this too quickly. There may be more to this than first meets the eye.

Think about it. This group of twenty-five riders will, for a limited window of eleven weeks and 77 days (which is like 1 ½ years of weekly church attendance!), do many of the same things that we do in our churches.

They are involved in MISSION. Every rider must raise a minimum of $1,500 that will be sent directly to different Fuller Center sites for the restoration and building of homes in partnership with families in need.

natures sanctuary
Nature’s sanctuary

They WORSHIP. Every Sunday they are encouraged to worship in the congregation where they have just spent the previous night sleeping in Sunday school rooms and on padded pews. But the bulk of their worship will be cycling through God’s country, enjoying the beauty of oceans and the grandeur of mountains, crossing desolate deserts and stripping down to wash in a frigid stream. Remember, God created the Garden of Eden before God dreamed up steeples and narthexes! Nature is God’s sanctuary.

They EVANGELIZE. At every stop they ask for an opportunity to share their mission with their host churches of how they are called to help families in need restore and build homes for themselves.

They are involved in a deep expression of FELLOWSHIP. It’s one thing to enjoy Christian fellowship around cookies and coffee on Sunday. It’s another thing to spend 24 hours/day for eleven weeks, cycling with, eating with, sharing sleeping quarters, and learning to be a community that tolerates each other, supports each other, and learns to appreciate and love each other over 4,000 miles of glorious and gut-wrenching cycling. These trips are like an intensive in community-building!

And to top it off the Fuller Bike Adventure tours are open to everyone. The cyclists are dedicated Christians as well as those who just want a great adventure while supporting an important mission. But all (Christian and non-Christian alike) are asked to honor the reason for the ambitious tour—to support families in need of homes all in the name of Christ. This is Kingdom of God stuff!

blessing of the bikes
Blessing of the bikes, Portland,

I want to thank Cascades for stepping up and supporting the Fuller Center Bike Adventure. I love that this honors our traditional Presbyterian mission and does it in a particularly Pacific Northwest style. Christian mission and bikes go really well together in Oregon.

But might it be even more than that? Are we also seeing the emergence of a new style of Christian community? People coming together to live together, cycle together, learn together, struggle together for a temporary experience rooted in mission, worship, evangelism, and fellowship.

Sure sounds like church to me.

Well done Cascades. I am proud of us.

 

The Community Bandwagon

I am still on my “community first, church second” roll from the “Re-Designing Church for the 21st Century” article that I posted two weeks ago. One of my readers wanted more than just a good theory; he wanted specifics. His comment ended with this challenge to me: “Now. What. Do. We. Do. About It?!?”

Cascades logoGiven that we have 96 churches in our presbytery and a broad diversity I often don’t give specific advice knowing that what will work for one church won’t work for another. Better to offer a general concept and unleash the creativity that is specific to each individual congregation, is my thinking. Besides that I have often favored being the one to simply ask the question and pose the possibility giving God as much room to enter into the dialogue as possible.

But this is one area where congregations often feel stuck. Some churches will want some assurance that if they put their efforts toward community first that it will result in a stronger, more vital and growing congregation. Other churches are willing to give up the expectation that there has to be a direct tie between community-building and church growth. But they still wonder, “How do we do it? How do we go about building community in an institution based on membership?”

I want to tell you that it isn’t as hard as you may think. The hard part is putting energy into something that may not directly result in membership, church growth, and more support for the budget. In churches where there is already limited energy it is natural to expect that any efforts at reaching people in the community will result in the strengthening the membership of the church. Letting go of that expectation is the much more difficult hurdle than actually building community.

meetupThere are signs all around us that people are desperate to build community and to form into shared networks of mutual support and learning. If I Google Meetup.com it will show me that there are over 2,000 groups within a 25-mile radius of Portland with groups ranging from as few as ten people to over 2,000 people. There are people meeting to hike together, study sacred literature, learn to line dance, travel around the world, and even explore nude beaches (this is not an endorsement, by the way, only an observation!).

More and more we are experiencing churches who sponsor community-building events not for the sake of enticing those attendees into membership, but simply for the sake of providing a safe, nurturing and rich environment for people to connect, learn, develop relationships.

My two previous articles highlighted the need to think about “community first, church second” as we live into this this 21st century as the Church. My reader stated strongly, “Now. What. Do. We. Do. About It?!?” Here are some ideas that come from my experience and exploring.

  • Start a Meetup.com group in your area initiated by someone in your church who has a particular interest or passion’
  • Look through the meetup.com list and choose one or two groups that you would be willing to sponsor either by the use of your building, paying the minimal monthly fees, or partnering with the group on select activities;
  • Partner with your neighbors to organize dinner parties somewhat along the lines of The Dinner Party, that caters to young adults who have experienced loss;
  • Scour the list of community events and groups on Craigslist to see what activities and groups you could add additional support for and partner with;
  • Work with Oregon-based “The Hearth Community” to sponsor community story-telling events. My experience at Bethany, Grants Pass tells me that despite people not attending church they are still deeply interested in a community drawn together by stories (we live out of the Biblical story).
  • Check out the following emerging communities that should give you more ideas:

For more information and background on the emergence of spiritually-based communities that are forming beyond the church read “How We Gather”

I will repeat: The hard is work is accepting that building community won’t necessarily mean membership.

But building community is not all that difficult.

It’s what people want.

And what people want happens–either with us or without us.

My Little “Aha” Moment

I can’t wait to share with you my little “aha” moment I had this past week. You might recall that last week I went easy on myself and forwarded an article to you titled “Re-Designing Church for the 21st Century.” I was in Wisconsin visiting my mom who is in end of life care. I had a great deal on my emotional plate and just didn’t have the mental or emotional space to sink into a thoughtful blog. I came across this article and knew that the content would do my work for me.

Campfire communityThe article highlighted four assumptions that feed into the successful “re-designing of the church,” but it was the first point that really caught my attention. “Community first, church second,” was listed as the most important assumption. I right away attached myself to it as it reflected my own experience in ministry over the past 25 years and also felt right for our time.

But the “aha” moment came when I reflected on one of the common themes I highlight when I am consulting with churches about our changing communities and the shifting religious values of our society. I almost always frame my comments in the broader context that what is happening is that we are moving from being the church in the middle of Christendom to being an outpost in a mission field.

The difference is this.

In Christendom, there was enough homogeneity between the church and our community that we could assume that people would come to us as long as we unlocked our doors on Sunday and smiled as we shook their hands. In the mission field we acknowledge that the values and lifestyles between us and our communities are different enough that we need to go where the people are and meet them where they are at. We can’t expect them to come to us; we have to go to them!

And this is where I had my “aha” moment.

missionary schoolFor decades we have done amazing mission work in countries all over the world ranging from teaching good farming practices, promoting clean water policies, digging irrigation canals, collaborating on issues of reconciliation, providing emergency medical care, building schools, and on and on and on. Really good, remarkable, Christ-embodied work!

What all of these mission projects have in common is that they seek to meet the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the people where they are at. Rather than demanding that people look like, pray like and believe like us we do mission work in a way that embodies the living presence of Christ in their context, their language and their culture.

A few years ago I heard the story of an African pastor who had come over to America. This pastor was meeting with an American pastor and the American pastor immediately launched into a query about how his church could be most helpful to the African pastor and his community. The African pastor quickly cut him off and said, “No, no, no! You don’t get it. We have economic impoverishment in my country, but you Americans have a deep spiritual impoverishment. I am here to do mission work with you; not the other way around!”

This was my “aha” moment.

The great spiritual need, the deep spiritual impoverishment of our culture is around connection and community. We have AWD cars, air conditioned homes, flat screened TVs, pension plans, and more technology than our little brains can assimilate.

luxury and isolationBut we also suffer from social isolation and from a deeply concerning alienation from each other and our own deeper selves. We often don’t even know the names of our neighbors and are more likely to call road side assistance than our own family when we are in trouble. We have so much abundance, yet we suffer so greatly from a deprivation of connection, deep belonging, and old-fashioned Amish-style community.

This was my “aha” moment.

When I placed the article last week right next to my constant reminder that we now live in a mission field, the lights went on. The article advised us that in “Re-designing church for the 21st century” it is community first, church second. Suddenly it wasn’t just good advice from a church consultant; it was like getting marching orders from our Presbyterian Mission Agency: “If you want to do mission work in America, it is community first. Go out and address the deep spiritual impoverishment of a people who have everything, but who lack basic connection, belonging and community.”

In some countries the mission work is to build schools and irrigation canals in deeply connected communities. In America we have the schools and the canals. What WE need are relationships, connection and community.

We are now in a mission field, my friends. And our neighbors desperately need us.

Community first, church second.

Go out.

Is This Your 10-Year Plan?

Dear Readers,

I am currently in Wisconsin assisting my sister in the care of my mother who has been put on end-of-life care. I came across this article during one of my freer moments. Not only does it allow me to post a blog without much effort; it also gives our congregations and their leaders a peek into the possible future of our churches, Christian community, and whatever new old thing God seems to be doing in this time.

CommunityI wanted to forward it to you as it contained many of the elements that I am watching emerge in churches who are successfully engaging with their changing neighborhoods and community. I can think of at least thirty churches in our own presbytery that are already employing these principles in new creative ways. We are ready for this!

The article is “Re-designing Church for the 21st Century.” This is definitely worth the read and a potential discussion at Session or with a Vision Team. Their four key points are below, but I would especially emphasize the first and the last as they mirror basic starting point assumptions I am carrying into this “Vision and Mission” work that reflects my title.

  • Community first, church second;
  • Partnerships that matter;
  • Incremental design;
  • Sense of adventure and creativity

I won’t say anything more about this now except to just encourage you to read the article and ask yourself, “Is This Our 10-Year Plan?”

When I return from Wisconsin we can talk about it more! Save me a place at the table. I like my coffee black and bold and my beer bitter and cold!

CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO ARTICLE

Taste and See

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34: 8

I am reading Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now during my morning meditation practice. He teased his readers with this reminder that Psalm 34: 8 reads, “taste and see” and just to make sure his point was not missed he added, “It doesn’t say ‘think and see.’” He knew who he was talking to—largely Western rationalist people who have cut their teeth on scientific inquiry and who come to know God through the intellectual rigors of systematic theology. Although I would say that we are more “think and do” people than “think and see.”

I know I am guilty. I loved theology in seminary. In fact it was the intellectual rigor of the classes in the Reformed tradition that drew me away from the more emotionally fed Baptist Sunday services of my college days.

Committee meetingSo I will admit that this language of “taste and see” in the psalms has me a bit stumped. I have been around Presbyterian circles and Presbyterian people long enough to know that if you want to explore a new idea or imagine a new ministry the first thing you do is create a committee. We are “think and do” type people. Get a few good heads together, share ideas, think about the possibilities and the drawbacks and then put the plan into action—think first, then do.

What do good Presbyterians do with the psalmist’s advice to “taste and see.” It doesn’t sound like a divine plan; it sounds like a divine sampler. It doesn’t sound like a whole-hearted commitment to do something; it sounds like a stick-your-big-toe-in-the-water, wait and see, half-commitment.

But there has to be something to this. I don’t think it would have survived nearly three thousand years if people had not found some juicy morsel of truth in it. Taste and see. What is it we “think and do” people need to learn from this?

riding a bikeI wonder if this “taste and see” approach to experiencing God’s goodness has to do with those arenas of life where thinking doesn’t do much good. I am an avid cyclist and I can tell you that most people don’t learn how to ride a bike by reading a manual and thinking and coming up with a riding plan. No, learning to ride a bike is a trial and error endeavor where a child gets to taste both the dirt below them when they fall and the rushing wind that massages them as they fly.

Kissing is a “taste and see” activity (literally!). Whoever learns to kiss by developing a “think and do” plan? No, a good kisser is not usually the person who follows the kissing manual, but the person who, by trial and error, learns what they like and what they don’t like and perfects the art one kiss at a time.

strawberriesI know that that this “taste and see” line is just three words and I am spending a lot of words exploring the implications of a life of faith that emerges more out of this than out of our usual “think and do” approaches. I am doing so not only because it has puzzled my usual Presbyterian way of thinking (there, I said it again!). I am doing so because I think this simple shift from thinking and doing to tasting and seeing gives us an image for how we are going to negotiate our way through this uncertain time.

It is the reason that I have used the image of holy breadcrumbs as my blog title to describe the process of our unfolding vision. I am convinced that our vision is not going to emerge out of a set of well-thought out plans, but from a series of experiments and experiences that we learn from and grow from. Seeing the way ahead only one breadcrumb at a time. Trial and error. More failures than successes. We may have to “taste and see” our way into the future.

kissing“O taste and see that the Lord is good,” writes the psalmist.

I believe we are going to have to learn to become good kissers.

Good kissers don’t think and do.

They taste and see.

Today’s moral:  More kissing, less thinking!

More actual living. Less planning how to live.

Adaptive Change…made simple

Do you remember that touching tear-jerking moment back in 2008 when truth and goodness and grace and innocence came crashing through a women’s college softball playoff game? Sara Tucholsky, a 5’ 2” senior in college, came up to bat in a sport where she had never hit a home run in her entire softball career, high school and college combined. Click to see video here.

first baseThen the unthinkable happened. She hit a hard line drive that cleared the home run fence. Two players rounded the bases toward home before everybody realized that Sara was lying on the ground in pain just past first base. She had failed to touch the base, turned abruptly to correct her mistake, and tore ligaments in her knee making her unable to go any further.

Umpires advised the Western Oregon coach that Sara could not be touched by any team member without disqualification, but could be replaced by a player at first base, settling for a two-run single. Either scenario would have resulted in the erasure of Sara’s first and only home run in her life. Those, apparently, are the rules and rules are what make games work.

Then the unthinkable went to the unbelievable.

First base player from the opposing team, Mallory Holtman, the home run career leader for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference asked whether their team could assist Sara around the bases. The umpire was clearly puzzled, but had to admit that there was nothing in the rules that would prevent an opposing team from aiding the other team’s player to advance through the bases and record a home run.

Western OregonMs. Holtman grabbed shortstop, Liz Wallace, and draping Sara over their shoulders, carried her around the bases allowing her to gently drop a foot at each base along the way. As they crossed home base together Sara was handed off to a group of cheering, grateful and teary teammates.

There were less than 100 people in attendance that day, but the video of this “softball miracle” has reached nearly 300,000 people and touched thousands of others with the remarkable show of character, grace and the ability to “do the right thing” and expose the façades that we all unknowingly hide behind in our daily lives.

The big word these days in the church is that we are living in an adaptive climate where the solutions to our challenges are not going to come from our usual toolbox, from the rules and regulations that we already have in place, but through thinking in creative and experimental ways to play an old game in a new way.

Church coaches and consultants will warn us that adaptive change is not for the faint of heart. It requires a great deal of courage, risk-taking and is one of the hardest journeys any organization can face. But really it is not all that complicated.

It is as simple as carrying an injured opposing player around the bases.

It’s as simple as healing on the Sabbath.

It’s as simple as running to the aid of a struggling, young Rose Garden singer.

It’s as simple as “losing your life for my sake, in order to gain it.”

It’s as simple as “doing the right thing” despite how it looks.

It’s as simple as being willing to lose a game in order to bring someone home.

This adaptive change thing is really not all that hard.

All we have to do is act like Jesus—always.

This Crazy Old World!

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” Romans 12: 2

Mom with coffee
At the coffee shop in 2017

I want to share with you that I have been thinking about my mother quite a lot these days. It’s been a fragile month. She lives in Ashland, Wisconsin close to my younger sister—which is a real gift right now. My mother has been hospitalized twice in the past month, been to rehab once and has now been placed on palliative care. My sister has spent many nights at the hospital, even more nights with our mother and has been pretty much on 24/7 call for the whole time. I can’t decide if I am grateful that I have escaped that level of care or if I am grieving that I can’t be the one to provide that care.

But I can tell that I have been thinking quite a lot of my mother these days. The topic of death has loomed in nearly every conversation—sometimes overtly and sometimes in the sacred pauses between sentences. But all three of us know that this is likely a letting go time and a time to be grateful for the life we have shared together.

But this blog is not really about her health or my grief; it is about how her potential earthly end has prodded me to think about what gifts I inherited from her.

I want to be clear here that I only really came to know my mom much later in my life. My parents divorced when I was three years old and, with the exception of a handful of visits in early childhood, I didn’t reconnect with my mom until I was 32 years old and had two children of my own. I don’t know my mother in the same way children who speak of the mother/child bond do. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t connect and learn to appreciate and love each other as two adults who were just about as different as we could be—or so I thought!

PrayingOne of the things I remember very clearly from our early visits was that my mom had a spiritual practice that I have not seen duplicated in all the years of my ministry. For many years, my mom didn’t feel that she was properly prepared for the day until she had engaged in a full four hours of deeply intimate prayer. 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. every day was reserved for prayer and meditation. Her rationale was that she didn’t want to be conformed to this world, but to God’s world, and it took her four hours a day to ground herself in God’s world before being ready to face our world.

I was a young minister serving in Racine, Wisconsin at the time and I honestly thought such devotion bordered on crazy. I mean a good long half hour prayer is a true feat (try that on Sunday and you’ll get fired!), but four hours of it a day! That’s nuts, I thought.

Ironically enough I was known to regularly stay up most of a Saturday night crafting a well-honed sermon in those early years. I considered it completely normal and even admirable that I would still be writing at 2:00 a.m. while I could not see that my mother’s 4:00 a.m. morning ritual as an equal and superior sign of dedication to her God and her spiritual practice.

I am 59 years old now and guess what? I find myself saying, “I am becoming more like my mother every day.” I have to admit that I will never reach her four-hour, early morning standard of prayer, but every year that passes my own morning spiritual ritual gets just a little bit longer. Ten years ago I had a morning ritual of 30-45 minutes. Today it often borders on a full hour and a half of yoga, meditation and prayer journaling.

Mom and Me
A selfie with Mom

And this is what I have discovered—the “renewing of my mind,” as Romans states it, takes place almost exclusively during this time. I can feel the actual transformation that Paul speaks of taking place in my heart and soul during these quiet minutes and hours of solitude. I can physically feel the shift taking place inside of me as if God was in there pushing things around, reorganizing and remodeling.

I have become completely dependent on this time so that the moment I walk out of my front door I feel rooted in God’s world before making decisions in this world. The crazy thing is that I am sounding more and more like my mother every day. Her four-hour devotion was completely rooted in making sure that she was grounded in God’s world before being thrown into our world.

I am finally getting it. Once I walk out my front door there are horns honking, emails screaming for attention, phones humming on silent, unspoken expectations hiding behind words, and crazy, nutty stuff spewing from our leaders. This is my world. This our world.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” Romans 12: 2

When do you allow for God to do the actual work of transformation in your life? Is there a time carved out for God to renew you on a daily basis? Ask my mom and she’ll tell you it only takes four hours a day! I think you could probably get by on an hour and half, though, but I am just an amateur.

One of these days I am going to lose my wonderfully crazy old mom. But what made her crazy in my eyes was her refusal to be conformed to this world. I couldn’t see that thirty years ago.

Now I am turning into my mom. And that makes me really proud.

Thanks, Mom, for being crazy for the right stuff.

Nones, Dones and Drew

Meet my seatmate, Drew.

On Monday I flew from Portland to Fresno for my twice yearly synod forum where the ten presbytery leaders of the Synod of the Pacific share notes, learn from each other and challenge each other as we seek to serve our presbyteries with as much courage and love as our busy little bodies can muster.

Drew was sitting next me in the aisle seat and I was in a more chatty mood than my usual self (most of the time I use my flying time as permission to not have to talk to anyone, answer phones or check emails and enjoy the luxury of marinating in my own thoughts). I wanted to talk this time and Drew politely obliged.

featured imageI can’t say that I was looking for a blog topic, but I am amazed at how often a conversation in the day or two before my blog deadline turns into a blog topic. This was one of those times.

Drew and his wife (who was unfortunately seated a few rows ahead of her husband) were off to a tenth anniversary vacation visiting parks, wineries and whatever else might hit their fancy day to day. I also discovered this couple were no strangers to the church. Both had grown up in the Protestant church—she as a Presbyterian and he in a loose network of progressive Baptist churches. More importantly, following college graduation, they joined a church as a couple and he became the paid accompanist for the church and she a regular soloist.

nones and donesThen they moved to Oregon to teach music in Oregon public schools. It’s been two years now since they have attended church. I pressed a little more and tested out his knowledge of religious trends. I explained to him how we are referring to some people who don’t attend church as Nones and Dones—Nones being those who have no religious preference at all and Dones being those church faithful who have decided that they can be more faithful without the church than with it. I asked him if he felt like he and his wife fit in either category.

Drew didn’t hesitate at all before saying, “I have heard of the Nones and we definitely are not part of that group. A Christ-centered church is really important to us. But we also aren’t part of the Dones because eventually we hope to get back to church.”

I asked him what changed between the time when he and his wife were deeply engaged in the life of the church as musicians and now had not even looked for a new church in their new location. Drew responded, “Quite honestly, it is the first time in our lives that we have allowed ourselves to take two days off in a row without any responsibilities to work or church. By the time we finish teaching school on Fridays we are both pretty tired. Church feels like something we have to gear up for and we just really need to rest and enjoy some time.”

It got me thinking. Traditionally Sunday worship was intended as a way to observe Sabbath—a time of letting down and having permission to not work. My sophomoric understanding of the Jewish tradition is that all work was supposed to be performed on Friday before sundown so that a full twenty-four hours could be dedicated to one’s relationship with God and the enjoyment of the fruits of our labors. I was struck that for this childless, but working couple, that sabbath rest is what they were yearning for and that the church was not their first choice for sabbath possibilities.

BrunchIn fact, Drew admitted that they have begun to enjoy the Portland tradition of going out to brunch on either Saturday or Sunday. I shared that weekend brunch is like a religion in Portland and he added that it has some of the elements of church—people standing in line talking to each other, sharing in a community experience, and anticipating a good meal in the same way church folks anticipate a good sermon or choir anthem. He also said that the food is a big part of the experience reflecting that in past locations  where they lived there were chain restaurants where one could get breakfast, but in Portland the food is as much about experiencing and participating in the character and ethos of Portland.

But Drew said they are not done with the church. They are just enjoying a break for now after years of teaching during the week and prepping for church on the weekend. The good news is that Drew and his wife are likely to show up sometime in the coming months and years in one of our mainline Protestant congregations. He was very clear about what they want—a progressive, Christ-centered congregation that takes care of each other and has a choir steeped in classical music. He even asked for the names of the Presbyterian churches that fit that description which I gladly shared with him.

There has been a lot written about the Nones and Dones of the Pacific Northwest—those who are increasingly removed from the narrative of the institutional church. It was refreshing to meet a young man who didn’t fit either of those categories. He and his wife are neither none nor done, but for now, if they must make a choice between gearing up for church on Sundays or taking sabbath, they are going to choose sabbath (and maybe a brunch location with hundreds of other Portlanders).

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” reads the fourth commandment.

What does that mean in a 24/7 culture?

 

Names have been changed and liberties have been taken with the conversation to represent a composite of previous conversations of similar nature.

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

Signing Off…

In trust…

That is how I sign off many of my emails these days. I have sometimes wondered if my ending salutations don’t sound Christian enough for my audience. As a former church pastor and now presbytery staff I feel a certain amount of responsibility to reinforce our common life in Christ. Such salutations as “Sincerely,” “Cordially Yours,” and “Best,” don’t exude the Christian spirit that I want to communicate. On the other hand, I have noticed that I rarely use the more common “God Bless” or “In Christ” that is typical of someone like me who represents a Christian tradition.

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Trusting God in the Nevada desert

I have thought a lot about the effort I have put in over the years to find an ending salutation that fits me well and communicates the spirit that I want to leave at the end of an email or letter. I have come to believe that my “In trust…” salutation does exactly what I am hoping for. It isn’t so distinctly Christian in name as to feel exclusive to those who don’t share my faith. And it is deeply Christian enough to communicate the very heart of my faith.

There is a great deal that my Christian faith has given me over the years—a reminder that love lies at the heart of all relationships and action; that grace is almost always a good thing; and that some things are worth fighting for like peace, justice and the truth. But if I had to name one thing that my Christian faith has given me more than anything else, it would have to be learning to live life in trust. Believe me, this has been a major work in progress!

javardh-680975-unsplashI don’t feel that every email needs to end with the salutation, “In trust…” I often end emails with “Peace…” or “Peace, as always…” and occasionally “Blessings…” when I am sure the person on the other end will appreciate the softer version of “God bless.” But the “In trust…” salutation is the one that gets most closely to the heart of my faith and to the spirit that I want to convey at the end of my emails.

I don’t have anything against saying, “God Bless” or “In Christ.” It’s just that I work really hard to find language that connects with people. “God Bless” connects, but not in a universally way that makes me feel like I want other people to read my email. “In Christ” may connect with the specific person I am writing to (and I do sometimes use that salutation if my sole goal is to connect with that particular reader), but not to the broader crowd.

When I say, “In trust…” I am often communicating, “I don’t know where all of this is going, but I trust you, I trust our process, I trust our relationship, I trust God.” I am also saying, “God is not finished with us yet. I trust where God is taking us. This conversation and this relationship is to be continued.”

What I like about my ending salutation, “In trust…” is that it works just as well for Christians and non-Christians, for progressives and conservatives, for family and friends as well as strangers, for professional colleagues and intimate associates.

I think I am writing this because I have sometimes wondered if people worry that my salutations don’t sound Christian enough for a person in my position. But I have come to accept that there is nothing more Christian than to start my day and to end my emails with the words, “In trust…”

It’s a nice way to end a letter.

It’s an even better way to live a life…