Holy Spirit: Modern Translation

I love it when a trusted friend reminds me of something that I already knew, but had forgotten in the midst of competing agendas, stressors, and “trying to be all things to all people.”

running weightsIt happened this past week. I was talking with a friend about the sense of responsibility I feel in this position and looking for some understanding and maybe even a little advice. I explained to her that there were parts of this position that took almost no effort at all. They fit my natural energies, passions and inclinations. I also admitted that there were parts that felt like I was running a race with 20-pound weights on my shoes. I could do them, but the emotional effort that they required seemed out of proportion to the tasks themselves.

My friend, who knows me pretty well, said, “I don’t know if you want advice, but I am going to give it anyway. I think you need to follow your energy.”

I smiled immediately and almost laughed to myself as she was reminding me of the advice that I have typically given to our churches. “Follow the energy” has been my broken-record repetitive motto for years. For churches and organizations that are asking questions about revitalization and new life I have said over and over again, “Follow the energy.”

I have come to believe this modern proverb is just a more contemporary way of saying, “Trust the Holy Spirit.”

windThis is way too simplified, but I feel like I trust God with the grand unfolding of history and the universe. I trust Jesus to be my moral compass and the ground of my soul. The Holy Spirit is in another category, a category that is more intuitive than rational. I trust the Holy Spirit when the way isn’t exactly clear and I have to listen more to my body and more to the direction of the wind than anything else. In other words, looking for and following energy more than anything else.

I remember how this played out at Eastminster Church (read story here) in NE Portland a few years ago. We all knew that Eastminster was dangerously close to closing and, therefore, gave us permission to experiment and not worry too much about success and failure.

From the very beginning, I reinforced that our experimenting and our programming should be heavily based on “following the energy” and trusting the Spirit to guide our decisions and commitments. Decisions came easily. If an idea had no energy behind it or for it we simply let it drop. If an idea spurred specific people into action we adopted it.

Not everything we adopted became successful. But everything we did adopt taught us something about ourselves and about our community. We were moving toward something even in failure. The motto “follow the energy” helped us to be honest about ourselves. We were able to acknowledge our gifts and our limitations. Eventually we noticed that there was more energy and resources in the community for our mission than there was actual energy in the congregation.

I reinforced again that it was still important to follow the energy. It was a nervous moment.

  • “What would it mean to take advantage of the energy in the community and lose our grip on the reins of controlling our mission?”
  • “Would the church have to change?”
  • “Would we feel like we were losing our church to an outside group?”

eastminster gardenDespite the anxiety the church stepped forward and invited those who had energy for our mission to shape the ministry of the church. Nine months later Eastminster was host to a 60-bed family homeless shelter serving the community during the six coldest months in partnership with Human Solutions. Nine months after that a 100-plot, ¾ acre community garden in partnership with Grow Portland was opened for the largely immigrant population of East Portland.

I write this because when I first arrived the congregation still dreamed of filling their four empty classrooms with Sunday school children again. At first there was some energy in the congregation to jump start that. But after a year it was clear that there was little energy in the community for Sunday school at this site.

Trusting the Holy Spirit and following the energy the congregation soon discovered that there was great energy in the community to commit to Matthew 25-like ministries—feeding those who are hungry (community garden) and welcoming the stranger (homeless shelter). The community and the church shared a common mission.

Eastminster could have never pulled this off by themselves. Quite simply there was not enough energy in the aging congregation of 35 members. But rather than beat themselves up for the lack of energy among themselves they looked at their mission and then asked the question, “Who has the energy to carry out Christ’s mission in our neighborhood?” It only took a few phone calls and a couple of lunch dates to find out and Eastminster almost couldn’t keep up with the pace of progress once the community was invited in to help shape their ministry.

EPC garden
Eastminster Community Garden

Eastminster did eventually close, but the homeless shelter remained for four years before outgrowing the space. The community garden has now expanded to include an orchard and honeybees. And most of the original Eastminster members still worship there as part of the Parkrose United Church of Christ (who, by the way, had the energy to continue the mission initiated by Eastminster!).

I do realize that there are some things that feel like you are dragging 20-pound weights on your feet and you still have do them anyway. Not everything in life is easy and fun. But anytime we can work with the energy rather than against it we make room for the Holy Spirit to show up and do her thing!

I still marvel at the short nine months that it took Eastminster to go from asking the question, “Who has the energy in the community for our mission” to the opening of a 60-bed family homeless shelter in their church building and the follow up construction of the community garden.

I had be reminded this week personally to worry less about meeting all the expectations of the job and to focus more on those things that personally energize me. It was something I taught and learned while serving as pastor at Eastminster.

I will use my little lesson as a reminder to you as well.

Follow the energy.

Do what you love.

Trust the Holy Spirit.

Let God handle the rest.

In honor of the legacy of Eastminster Presbyterian Church

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

Finding Our “Political” Voice

“Oh boy! Where is Brian going with this topic,” I can hear the whispers in your head already forming. I know this is a sensitive topic and can be controversial in the church. I also know that a Christianity that remains silent in the face of injustice and inhumane policies is not a Christianity that I am willing to talk to my friends about.

Voter registrationYou need to understand that I partly came to religion through politics. Before I entered college I took a one-year break from school in order to grow up a little. During that gap year I worked as a saw man for a mobile home factory, but I also was a precinct coordinator for Bill Armstrong, who was running for the U.S. Senate from Colorado.

I still remember the day I stripped down out of my factory clothing with paint and sawdust covering every inch of my clothing and donned a three-piece suit as I accompanied Mr. Armstrong to a fundraiser. There I ate food that I couldn’t even pronounce and sat mesmerized as then California governor, Ronald Reagan, offered the keynote. I felt pretty special that day as this 19 year-old stood just feet from Governor Reagan in a separate room as the press shoved their microphones and their bright lights into his face and pelted him with questions.

Political valuesA few months later I was enrolled in college with a declared major in political science. I wanted to follow Bill Armstrong into the world of politics. I loved this arena where we were asking questions like, “What is the role that government should play in people’s lives?” “What are the values that guide and govern our common life?” “How do we make our society fair to everyone?” “What is the line between individual rights and the public good?”

Strangely enough, I was also taking religion courses alongside my courses in political science. I soon discovered that religion and politics were not all that different. They were asking essentially the same questions. The only difference was that our political answers were grounded in a broader political, sociological and ideological framework, whereas our religious answers were grounded in a sacred narrative about God’s activity in the world.

As I entered my second year of studies I shifted my major to religious studies and abandoned my pursuit of a political science degree. Some might have thought that it was a major shift, but for me it was simply a decision to continue my study of human nature and social structures, but to ground those studies in a spiritual narrative reflecting God’s hope for humanity.

Senate chambersThe word political comes from the Greek root polis which is the word that points to the philosophy of how the city/state is organized, governed and ordered. It is the word that assumes such questions as “How ought we to relate to each other economically, socially and politically?” “What are the values and laws that guide and govern how we treat each other?” “What are the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship and belonging?”

I have titled this blog “Finding Our Political Voice” not because I want to see the presbytery and our churches suddenly insert themselves into our increasingly polarized political debates. And not because I want us to follow those in the religious community who have wedded themselves to one political party or another. No, I have titled this blog “Finding Our Political Voice” just as a reminder that religious questions and religious values almost always have political ramifications. Politics and religion have always been first cousins and it is impossible to completely separate them from each other.

border fenceWe cannot proclaim from the pulpit that we have a Christian obligation to “welcome the stranger” and not also at the same time make a statement about what is happening to the “strangers” on our southern border.

We cannot teach that our religion calls for us to “love kindness”(Micah 6: 8)  and at the same time not hear it as a word of judgment on those who use cruel and derisive comments to dehumanize others and manipulate them.

We cannot reinforce that our most essential ministries are to reach out “to the least of these” (Matt. 25) and at the same time have nothing to say about policies that discriminate against women, LGBTQIA persons, minorities, and the economically vulnerable.

Quite honestly I could have titled this blog, “Finding Our Religious Voice” and made the same point. The world of religion and politics ask almost the exact same questions. The only difference is the narrative that we point to get our answers.

But make no mistake. Religious statements have political implications by their very nature.

Jesus didn’t say, “Love the person sitting next to you in the pew.” He said, “Love your neighbor.”

And that is as much a political statement as a religious one.

 

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

From Lab to Playground!

For weeks I was looking for just the right metaphor to attach to our presbytery’s commitment to a period of innovation. At the Presbytery Leadership Commission (PLC) I suggested maybe “Innovation Explosion” or “A Season of Innovation.” Explosion just made everyone laugh and I took some well-deserved teasing. A Season made it sound a little too temporary. In the end, the PLC endorsed my commitment to encouraging innovation in the presbytery during this next 2019-20 period and left it up to me to find the right metaphor.

That was a mistake!

LaboratoryThe best I could come up with was Innovation Lab. I liked the lab idea intellectually. It communicated the experimental nature of innovation and it fit the reputation that the Pacific Northwest is getting as being pioneers in the world of shifting religious and spiritual identities. But, I have to admit, it still felt awkward and clunky. It had a sort of lifeless, clinical spirit to it.

But it was the best I could come up with. I was prepared to sell my product at this past weekend’s presbytery meeting in Ashland. Innovation Lab was on the slide and my notes were written in a way to try to make it sound more interesting and attractive than it really was.

I only had to wait for the trials of ordination of one Morgan Schmidt of First, Bend to conclude. I delightfully watched Morgan share her statement of faith and then playfully and thoughtfully answer the questions from the floor of the presbytery. Then this young millennial said it. I don’t remember the exact context, but it was something along the lines of seeing the world as a playground for God’s activity.

Boom!

Playground was the word I was looking for. I was so convinced of it that I stood up five minutes later during my report and said on the spot, “I am almost for sure going to change Innovation Lab to Innovation Playground.” I exclaimed that I had been trying to find the right word for weeks and never landed on anything that made my heart sing. Playground did it immediately. It had life to it!

Fun lipsI especially like this word because it took me back to that day in September, 2017 when I stood before the presbytery for the vote on my candidacy for this position. During my comments to the presbytery I reminded us that we had a number of challenges to face, but that because we could trust God with our future, we had the permission to have some fun. And then the job started and I couldn’t find room to just be playful and have fun!

On my way back from the presbytery meeting I was listening to the TED Radio Hour in a program titled, “Where Joy Hides.” The first featured speaker was another millennial, Simone Giertz, “inventor of useless things.” Simone was an especially bright student in high school, but she also suffered from intense performance anxiety. Here is how she describes her attempt to be successful without the pressure of performance anxiety:

I got interested in building robots, and I wanted to teach myself about hardware. But building things with hardware, especially if you’re teaching yourself, is something that’s really difficult to do. It has a high likelihood of failure and moreover, it has a high likelihood of making you feel stupid. And that was my biggest fear at the time. So I came up with a setup that would guarantee success 100 percent of the time. With my setup, it would be nearly impossible to fail. And that was that instead of trying to succeed, I was going to try to build things that would fail. And even though I didn’t realize it at the time, building stupid things was actually quite smart, because as I kept on learning about hardware, for the first time in my life, I did not have to deal with my performance anxiety. And as soon as I removed all pressure and expectations from myself, that pressure quickly got replaced by enthusiasm, and it allowed me to just play.

playgroundWhat comes next is even more important. As she learned how to just play without the pressure of trying to succeed her enthusiasm for creating useless things rubbed off on other people. Thousands of people started watching her YouTube videos (now almost two million followers) and eventually she created a job for herself inventing useless things like a Toothbrush Helmet, sharing them on the internet, and creating a steady stream of income. Again, in her own words:

So as much as my machines can seem like simple engineering slapstick, I realize that I stumbled on something bigger than that. It’s this expression of joy and humility that often gets lost in engineering, and for me it was a way to learn about hardware without having my performance anxiety get in the way. I often get asked if I think I’m ever going to build something useful, and maybe someday I will.

But the way I see it, I already have because I’ve built myself this job and…it’s something that I could never have planned for. Instead it happened just because I was enthusiastic about what I was doing, and I was sharing that enthusiasm with other people. To me that’s the true beauty of making useless things, because it’s this acknowledgment that you don’t always know what the best answer is. And it turns off that voice in your head that tells you that you know exactly how the world works. And maybe a toothbrush helmet isn’t the answer, but at least you’re asking the question.

bubblesThe Presbytery Leadership Commission has endorsed my recommendation (vetted through the Dream Team) to focus on innovation and creativity at least through 2020. With the timely help of soon-to-be-ordained, Morgan Schmidt, I am going to call this initiative the Innovation Playground!

It’s time to play, create, and invent.

It’s time to have fun.

It’s time to worry less about success and more about that which we can get excited and enthusiastic about.

Remember, “On the seventh day God created recess!”

Vision from the Seat of a Kayak

As many of you know, I am a bit of an outdoor adventurer. Over the last decade and a half I have embarked on a number of multi-week cycling pilgrimages covering large swaths of territory in the West, across parts of Europe, the Middle East and even an overly ambitious trek up to the base of Mt. Everest on my two spoked wheels.

kayakI am pretty sure my next big purchase is going to be a kayak. How I lasted seventeen years living next to our spectacular Oregon rivers and bays without buying a kayak is a mystery to me! I am not an expert at kayaking, but I have become quite the expert at over-working a metaphor. And I have decided that river kayaking is the right metaphor for how I am exercising leadership in the presbytery at this time.

I was pondering this with a good friend recently as I was trying to make my way through the Mt. Everest-sized expectations I sometimes feel in this position. I was talking about how much of my work is to personally stay grounded. He smiled at me and said, “That’s odd. You are a man in constant motion. Are you sure ‘grounded’ is the right word?”

kayak in canyonThat’s when the metaphor of the kayak came to me. I realized I needed a better metaphor that fit a person and a presbytery that is constantly changing, in motion, evolving and transforming. We don’t need to be grounded like an airplane that is going nowhere; we need to be centered and balanced like a kayak that is riding the waves and following the currents of the Holy Spirit!

Here is are some thoughts that the kayak metaphor sparked about what it means to lead, guide, and serve our presbytery in this particularly Pentecostal, Holy Spirited moment:

  • I am glad to take us down the river, but I will not respond to overtures to turn our kayaks around and battle to defy the currents by paddling frantically upstream. That is an invitation to exhaustion and failure;
  • I will gladly spend as much time as is needed to help us understand the direction of the river, the currents, the dangers, the opportunities and the resources needed to successfully navigate a Class 4 whitewater experience;
  • Kayaking is not about just letting the water take you where it will; kayaking is about using the force of the water to propel you downstream and using the oars to navigate around dangers and find the best line through rough waters;
  • A kayaker assumes that she can’t change the course of the river; she can only change the course of the kayak;
  • Expert kayakers talk like religious mystics—kayaking is a river dance where one’s body, boat and water are all flowing in a sacred rhythm;
  • It’s always better to plan a course of action before the rapids than it is to freak out in the midst of the rapids;
  • Big kayaks are less impacted by individual waves in a river; small kayaks are more responsive and maneuverable.
  • Kayaking back up a river is a whole heck of a lot of work, but leads to a known destination; kayaking down the river leads to an unknown destination, but is a whole heck of a lot more fun!

I am glad to be part of this adventure with you!

 

 

When God is not Assumed

I think we need to take notice.

I regularly receive the weekly On Being Project e-newsletter, The Pause, by Krista Tippett. Many of the weekly themes mirror themes that regularly show up in our pulpits and our religious education programs—belonging, silence and solitude, humility, empathy, connection, etc.

Good graffittiI know we preachers and teachers are always looking for good material that can deepen our understanding of a certain Biblical text. We will use poetry, the lyrics from a song, an overheard comment on the bus, quotes from commentaries, a billboard message, and movie dialogue. Most of us aren’t all that concerned that the material comes from secular sources even as it reinforces Biblical and religious truths.

Certainly much of the material that is found in the The Pause would be good fodder for Sunday sermons. And I would recommend any preacher or teacher to take notice of what they have to say about a variety of topics. But that is not what I mean when I say “I think we need to take notice.”

What I think we need to notice is that it seems that On Being has their finger on the pulse of emerging trends around religion and spirituality. I know they would not advertise themselves as a religious organization or publication. But, regularly, as they explore basic human themes (like belonging, humility and empathy) they turn to religious scholars and writers, priests, pastors, rabbis, and spiritual leaders for insight and wisdom into their chosen theme. On Being is not a religious organization, but they highly value the wisdom of religious traditions. This is important and worth taking notice.

Just take a look at this list of religious figures who have been either quoted or interviewed in the last few newsletters. You likely recognize a few names from your own religious and spiritual seeking:

onbeing group
An On Being conversation

Here is what I want us to notice. In our churches we often start with God and make the connection to the human experience. God is assumed. God is the starting point. What On Being does is start with the human experience and then draws on many different lenses to understand those experiences. The religious lens is not ignored; it is one voice among many, and an important voice at that. Religion is more a resource for the human experience rather than an end in itself.

I have titled this post When God is Not Assumed. Certainly this title can be applied to the The On Being Project and their weekly newsletter. But I am also finding evidence that our churches are increasingly becoming places “where faith and doubt, belief and unbelief” are equally welcome. Like The On Being Project, many of our churches are starting to soften the “God is assumed here” message that seems to automatically accompany any perception that one has of church. I see subtle signs that our churches are less concerned with right belief than they are with accepting people where they are at—theistic and a-theistic, alike!

In our 1001 New Worshiping Communities we are increasingly finding that a belief in God is rarely a prerequisite for participation. Our new worshiping communities are places of hospitality and welcome for people who have questions, who share similar struggles, interests and lifestyles, and who may even flirt closely with agnosticism and atheism. The point is that God is no longer the obvious starting point. God is more of a question than an answer.

God is not the assumption. God is the gift!

Table conversationsSo here is an idea. The On Being Project has an initiative called the Civil Conversations Project. If you are interested in provided a safe and sacred place for people in your community to have important conversations around things that matter you might consider this. What I like about this is that they avoid the usual sacred vs. secular dichotomy that we often see.

You know what I mean. If you go to a church class you usually assume that God will be the starting point or, at least, the central point. If you go to a community class God might not even be welcome. I have seen this personally happen at meetups where all viewpoints are welcome EXCEPT religious viewpoints. Ugh…

Much of our experience is rooted in an either/or world. It’s safe, expected and assumed to talk about God in church. And it’s often dangerous to talk about God anyplace else.

On Being and the Civil Conversations Project breaks through that either/or thinking. In their world God is not assumed, but God is certainly welcomed as a gift.

Our churches are asking, “How do we connect with an increasingly secular community and at the same time not lose our religious identity?”

My friends, On Being is asking a similar question and showing all kinds of success. They may be showing us the way forward.

I think we need to take notice!

From Outlier to Forerunner

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

They are watching!

Before you skip this blog as just another one of those anti-government, Big Brother, paranoid diatribes let me assure you I am not trying to scare you. I am actually trying inspire you with an extra-large double-scoop serving of hope!

Last week I came across an article that confirmed a hunch that I have carried for many years. Those of us in the Pacific Northwest are being watched. When it comes to religious trends, spiritual entrepreneurship and hints at what is coming next we in the Pacific Northwest are on people’s radars. The title of the article simply stated, “The Pacific Northwest is the American Religious Future.”

Their premise was that the rise of the Nones (those who claim no religious affiliation) continues to be a national trend that only seems to be gaining momentum. In 1970 5% of the U.S. population claimed no religious affiliation; today 23.1% of Americans claim no religious affiliation. In Oregon and Washington that number is 31% and 32% and it continues its regular and persistent rise.

The truth is that Vermont and New Hampshire actually bypassed the Pacific Northwest in the percentage of unaffiliated religious adherents a few years ago, but that hasn’t stopped the perception that the Pacific Northwest is unique when it comes to religious loyalty. That perception has probably been earned by the low religiosity that dates back into our 19th century pioneering days. The Northeast is only a recent arrival to this party.

OutliersBut I especially want to highlight that this article makes the point that Oregon and Washington are increasingly being seen as forerunners to the rest of the country. This is important because for most of our history we have been seen as outliers. Now we are seen as the folks who are standing in the front of the line.

Nobody is predicting that the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated is going to decrease. Any reputable religious futurist will tell you that America seems to be following the trends in Europe and Great Britain where only 22% of Europeans attend church at least once a month and 53% of Brits are religiously unaffiliated.

The growth of the religiously unaffiliated in our country is an established and accepted fact. It is no wonder that people are thinking of Oregon as less of an outlier and more as a possible forerunner to a new religious America. People are watching and asking, “What can we learn from how the Pacific Northwest creatively addresses and engages with the increasing percentage of “Nones” in our communities.”

Of course this is probably not news to most of you. And it is not a sudden realization to me as well.

I write this because we in Cascades Presbytery are searching for the compelling vision that will draw us all together on a shared journey of Christian mission, witness and ministry. I think this is part of our story and part of the emerging vision that is unfolding before us.

It would arrogant of me and of us to proclaim to our brothers and sisters around the country that we have anointed ourselves as the pioneers and the incarnation of the future church. I don’t think it is our place to claim that we necessarily are the forerunners of a new religious America. But I do think it is our responsibility to answer the call that has clearly been placed at our feet.

The fact of the matter is America is steadily seeing growing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated. And the fact of the matter is that this beautiful area of the country we call the Pacific Northwest has led the nation in that demographic for more than a century.

The rest of religious America is asking the question, “How are we going to address and engage with the increasing numbers of religiously unaffiliated in our communities?” As they ask that question they naturally turn their attention to Oregon and Washington and ask, “How are they doing it and what can we learn from them?”

puzzle piecesAt this month’s presbytery meeting the Presbytery Leadership Commission will be making their report. Part of their report is to communicate to the presbytery that one of two major mission priorities for the 2019-20 period is to nurture a culture of innovation in this presbytery in an initiative that we are calling INNOVATION LAB. Based on the parable of the talents and the ministry “to the least of these” both in Matthew 25 we are going to encourage our congregations and our presbytery to become a lab for creative ministries and spiritual entrepreneurship.

Of course, this is nothing new for us. What is different is that we in Cascades have often been seen as outliers—doing ministry a little differently and being not quite in step with the conventions of the rest of the denomination. We need to get used to the fact that increasingly the rest of the country may be looking to us more as forerunners and pioneers leading us to a new religious America. We are no longer just the weird ones in a state most of the country still can’t pronounce correctly (Ora-gone!).

Personally, I don’t care all that much whether the rest of the country sees us as forerunners and leaders in this emerging new time. What I do care about is doing ministry faithfully in our area and with our people. What I do care about is addressing and engaging with the community in which we find ourselves.

It just happens to be that who we are is what the rest of the country is becoming. And they seem to know it.

We have a responsibility to clear the path and pave the way. We have a responsibility to be pioneers.

Thank God, pioneering is a way of life for us here.

To Do or Not to Do

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

To do or not to do.

That is the question.

Mom Memorial 2
The memorial altar

As I write this, today is Tuesday. It is the first day back from Wisconsin after taking more than a week to attend to my mother’s last few days, clean out her apartment and gather with family to memorialize her and celebrate her life. It has been an emotional roller coaster of grief and loss, relief, and thanksgiving and gratitude.

My time sheet says that I was gone from the office with a combination of sick leave and bereavement leave. Today my time sheet will read that I gave the presbytery a full day’s worth of work.

But it isn’t true. My time sheet is lying.

I arrived home late on Sunday night and knew well enough not to schedule work the next day. I knew that I would need time to shop for groceries, do wash, read through mail and simply settle in once again. I gave myself a full day to recover from my mom’s death and all the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional effort that went in to taking this journey with her and my family. I knew that I would need a full day of recovery before settling back into presbytery work.

As I planned my first day back I filled my calendar with promises to reschedule all the appointments I had postponed when I suddenly flew out on a few hours’ notice. I had a list of things to do that was at least twice as long as my usual, every day list. Which made sense, really. I had been gone for over a week and I wanted to use this first day back as an opportunity to get back up to speed–as if my mom’s death was just an inconvenient interruption to my real life.

walking through mudBut I will be honest. I feel like I am walking through emotional mud. Small tasks feel gargantuan. On my keyboard my fingers are typing out all the right words, but my heart and my soul feel like they never quite made it back from Wisconsin and my mom’s bedside. I am here in Portland, but I am not really here. I have flown my body back, but my soul is still hovering somewhere between my mom’s bedside and the funeral home where we celebrated her life.

I came into the office today prepared to get back to the tasks I had put off. I came in ready to do, but all I really feel capable of today is to be. To be present to the loss of my mother. To honor the heaviness in my heart and soul. To be honest about how much energy it takes just to mourn and to feel. To allow myself to be realistic about how much I am capable of doing so that I can make room for the work of just being.

It is interesting that we call ourselves human beings, yet most of us are hard-wired to be human doings. Our sense of identity and self-worth is often tied up more in what we do than in who we aim to be. In many cultures the first question asked of a stranger is, “Who are your people?” We all know that one of the first questions we Americans ask  is, “What do you do?” It would not be okay for me to simply answer that question right now, “I am my mother’s son and I grieve.” No, that is just a temporary interruption to my real identity as a human doing, seems to be my misguided assumption.

I arrived back from Wisconsin intent on picking up where I left off. I had lots to do before I left and even more to do when I returned. I was ready to get caught back up as if my week absence and my mother’s death would have a negligible effect on my life and my schedule.

Mom Memorial 1
Collage of my mother’s life

But the truth is my world is different now. I don’t think I even know what I mean when I say that, but my heart knows it is true. My mother’s absence changes my place in the world. I can’t yet tell how it will change or what this new world will look like, but my body seems to intuitively know that with my mother’s passing a world also passed away. I am in a new world today and I don’t even know what it is called.

I write this today because I want to be honest with you. I am not being paid to grieve. I know that. I am paid to work. When I walk into this office I expect myself to get down to the business of doing. But the truth is, at least for the moment, I am going through the motions of doing while my soul steals precious work time in order to be, just be, truly be.

My time sheet says that my bereavement is officially over. My souls says that it’s only just begun.

Yes, there is lots to do. But right now I am called to just be.

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.