White Theology

There was an underlying seriousness to it, but at the time it was almost tongue-in-cheek.

I am referring to an event during my first year in seminary—1986 at San Francisco Theological Seminary. My particular seminary class had more women than men and as we began taking Reformed Theology classes many of us, led by the women, started referring to the class as “European white male theology.” I remember at the time seeing their point, but having no interest in signing on as a rebel for the cause.

But I loved theology.

San Francisco Theological Seminary is part of the eight-member Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Twice a week I took the van over to Berkeley to take classes in theology at one of our sister seminaries. I dove into feminist theology and liberation theology. I took classes on the theology and philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I immersed myself in the theologies that developed post-Holocaust in both Christian and Jewish traditions. I surveyed process theology and theologies rooted in co-creation models.

As I graduated, I came away with one distinctly clear revelation—

  • All theology is contextual.
  • All theology is seen through the particular experience of those who write it.

I recalled that this past week as I watched a program referred to me from one of our congregation’s members. She has been trying to understand the issue of structural racism in the church. The one-hour program, White Savior: Racism in the American Church, reminded me of those early comments in seminary when we teasingly but seriously started referring to Reformed Theology as European white male theology.

The program (link here) highlighted how any theology that wanders from what we consider the norm gets a descriptor before it. Thus, theology written by women is not just theology, but it is feminist theology. Theology by and about the black female experience is womanist theology. Theology from base communities in Latin America is liberation theology. Theology by gay and lesbian persons is queer theology.

But theology that is written through a Western European male lens gets to just be called theology. We think of it as the norm. Any other theology is labeled as an alternative. Any other theology is read with the disclaimer “Demographic bias assumed.”

Only European white male theology doesn’t have to reveal its context or offer a disclaimer of cultural, gender, or socioeconomic bias. Only white theology gets a pass on having to reveal its European imperialistic colonizing patriarchal roots.

I know some who read this are going to feel an attack on their faith. I do not mean it that way. My only attack is on the ongoing assumption that we are the only people who don’t have to name the specific context of our theology.

We can no longer dismiss the theology of others by saying, “Well, it’s the feminist perspective or the black perspective or the marginalized perspective or the gay perspective or the new age perspective” without also admitting that ours is the privileged perspective. Our perspective has been shaped by generations of white privilege rooted in an assumption that an imperialistic colonizing patriarchal society mirrored an imperialistic colonizing patriarchal God.

Saying we have a white theology is not a put down. It’s a descriptor.

We are not the norm. But, we are the powerful and the privileged. And that is the context of white theology.

We don’t own theology.

We only own our European imperialistic colonizing patriarchal version of it.

If we require others to name the context of their theology then we have to do the same thing.

The future of America depends on it.

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

In Memory of Breonna Taylor and all who feel their lives don’t matter.

My Test of Faith

This is not an easy blog to write.

Every bone in my body rebels at telling you the decision that I made as wildfires sweep across our communities in Oregon. My pastoral character tells me that if ever there was a time that the presbytery needs me, it is now. Yet, I need to inform you that starting Friday I will be taking a week-long vacation. I will be gone until Monday, September 21 and there will be no Holy Breadcrumbs next week. It will be a true vacation—no emails, no phone calls, no writing.

Tuesday evening smoke

I had been waiting for the right moment for months. All of us on staff essentially postponed our vacations in recent months as we responded to the sudden crisis that the coronavirus placed upon us. The complete shift of how we worship and connect was followed by civil unrest over the murder of George Floyd and the sorting out in our churches about our unconscious involvement.

I don’t mean this as a complaint. It is just a fact. But I only took two vacation days in the first eight months of the year. Since early August I have been encouraging staff as well as myself to finally take the vacation that we had put off. Many of us have been showing the strain of long sustained crisis management.

In the last four weeks I have made socially distanced travel plans, reserved rooms, bought new outdoor equipment, and carved this time out feeling that I could sneak a break in between crises.

And then 2020 just revealed her ugly character again. Just two days before well-deserved travel plans the state of Oregon erupts in what the governor is calling “an historic level disaster.” Most pastors are wired for such moments as this. We pride ourselves on walking with people and communities in their most critical moments—births, weddings, funerals, hospitalizations and community tragedies. Days off don’t mean a thing when a family or a congregation is in crisis.

Smoke outside apartment in Clackamas County
on Wednesday

Which is why my decision this week both feels right and eats away at me. I am taking my vacation anyway. I need this. Our staff needs me to do this. I believe the presbytery needs me to do this.

But I titled this blog post “My Test of Faith” because in recent months an insightful friend has challenged me to look at a subtle arrogance that may be permeating my character. Quite honestly, it has been hard to hear this. I certainly don’t consider myself an arrogant person. I think I tend toward modesty and humility. But he has a point. In the midst of all these crises he asked recently, “Why do you think you are so important that you can’t take time off? What role does God play in all this?”

Ouch! I didn’t like hearing that even as I realized he had a point. I couldn’t even stutter my way to a good answer. The fact of the matter is that subconsciously I believe that if I don’t do something, nobody will, not even God!

So this next week is a test of my faith. Every pastoral bone in my body says that I should abandon my vacation plans and be present to the presbytery in this time. But my soul knows better. My body knows better. It’s been a long stretch of hyper vigilance and nearly 24/7 crisis management. It is time for a break. It is time to refresh my soul.

But more importantly it is time to trust my staff.

It is time to trust you.

It is time to trust God.

It is time to admit that I am not indispensable.

Know that my prayers are with you in this time.

Know that I believe that between you and God “You’ve got this!”

At least that is what I am working on. That is my little test of faith.

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

Lightening the Load

The date: August 26, 2011

Hwy 50I was 145 miles into the Loneliest Road in America—Highway 50 that crosses the Nevada desert from east to west. I still had 352 miles of cycling to go. I woke up in Ely, Nevada to my usual routine of getting a full breakfast of orange juice, coffee, eggs, bacon, and a pile of pancakes. I was prepared for the next leg of the journey. But I was worried. After two days of cycling in the desert with fifty pounds of gear after seven weeks and 2,500 miles behind me, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to push my body and my soul across the desert in 102 degree heat. The ride had become more brutal work than adventurous fun.

I finished my breakfast, went back to my motel room and, rather than pull my gear together, got out the map. “Could I finish the last 1,500 miles without the use of camping gear? Could I send my sleeping bag, pad, tent and cooking gear home, lighten my load, and make the trip much more enjoyable?”

DesertIt was a risk. Once I emerged from the desert there were enough towns where I felt confident that there would be motels, fellow cyclists, kind Presbyterians and friends to rely on for nightly shelter. The risk was the desert. With services only every 65-90 miles the lighter load would make it easier to bridge those difficult distances. On the other hand, if I didn’t make it I would have no gear to rely on if I found myself forced to bed down for the night with no bedding. The thought of spending the night on the sand as the desert turned cold was frightening at best.

It was one of the best decisions of the trip. As the cycling became more daunting it wasn’t pushing harder and digging deeper that saved me; it was lightening my load.

Bike on hwy 50The image of that day keeps coming back to me as I ponder how to negotiate my way through the overwhelming series of events of recent months. I feel like I am crossing a metaphorical desert once again. That same feeling of realizing that just pushing harder isn’t going to be the answer that eventually saves me. I don’t think I can dig deeper. It’s not about being able to carry a heavier load but being willing to give myself grace and lighten the load.

And lightening my load is what I am trying to do. My body and soul are refusing to take more on, work longer and later, cram more into my day, and attempt to get to the other side of this by sheer will, grit and determination. Rather, I am attempting to lighten my load, let go of that which is not essential, and trust that what does not get done apparently wasn’t important in the first place.

It’s time for more grace and less push.

rummage salePhyllis Tickle reminded us in The Great Emergence that the church seems to goes through a massive ecclesiastical rummage sale every 500 years. Many of us have been consulting and preaching that theme for years encouraging churches and judicatories to let go of that which has outlived its usefulness. Like old shoes and outdated outfits the church every few centuries needs to do a major closet cleaning.

It feels to me that we have moved from the rummage sale that we SHOULD do to the rummage sale that we MUST do. It’s no longer one possible option among many, but an essential act that our ecclesiastical lives may depend on. If we do not lighten our loads, we run the risk of being crushed by the weight of and the barrage of competing crises.

ASUS 4 282On August 26, 2011 (I remember the exact day!) I faced a choice in the Nevada desert—either continue to pound my body and soul into the ground as I attempted to cross the desert with fifty pounds of gear or lighten my load and make the adventure fun again.

The next morning, twenty pounds of gear lighter, I nearly danced across the desert. I was having fun again.

  • What weight are you carrying that you need to let go of now?
  • What responsibilities now feel optional and are better reserved for another time?
  • What physical possessions support your emotional and spiritual health? Which ones are weighing you down and holding you back?
  • What do you need to do in order to dance through this time?

Lighten the load.

Let’s find a way to dance across this wilderness.

2-Wheeled Goodness

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

It started with a wagon of summer goodness and turned into two-wheeled goodness.

Goodness 1At the Portland Farmer’s Market last Saturday a friend and I walked past a young family with a little square wagon full of fresh strawberries, blueberries, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers. Images are powerful things and I was immediately struck by how much goodness was packed into that small wagon. I doubled back and asked the family, “Any chance I could take a picture of your farmer’s market goodies?” The family happily obliged and I moved on.

But later that day I did something unusual. I stopped numerous times during a bike ride to take pictures of simple goodness. This is unusual because once I get on my bike I rarely stop. I enjoy the rhythm of my legs moving and the wind blowing across my body so much that I have been known to ride right past the perfect picture moment. I hate stopping for anything on my bike.

But this day was different. I had to stop. I had to capture some of the simple goodness that I encountered on my two-wheeled adventure through Portland.

Last week I wrote about what we do “When it is Friggin’ HARD.” It seemed to strike a chord for many as the hits on my blog suddenly jumped by 400%. By Saturday my body and soul demanded that I somehow see or insert some goodness into my day. The little wagon full of produce started it and the theme carried its way through the day.

Goodness 4 (2)Below are just a few of the pictures that I took along my urban two-wheeled adventure. Most of the pictures were simple still shots. But the shot of the orange skeleton at the homeless encampment has a deeper story. I rode past the skeleton and immediately wanted to snap a shot of it. But I also didn’t want to invade the privacy of those who were encamped here. While it was on public property it was also home for the two shirtless men who were seated there. I was struck by the small simple gestures that they had made to turn their little grassy from a homeless camp into a home.

I rode back and pulled up close to the skeleton. “Any chance I could give you five dollars to take a picture of this skeleton?” “Sure thing,” the younger man said, “Go ahead.” He didn’t seem to care about the five dollars. I repeated, “Here, I am glad to pay you for letting me take the picture.” The man sauntered over and accepted the bill with a quick but authentic nod of thanks.

It was clear that he didn’t expect the payment. But I needed it. I needed to feel that I was putting some kindness and generosity into the world. So much of my time has been focused on responding to crisis, fighting the urge to step into the public square with an “eye for an eye” type of engagement, and grieving over the loss of civility in our culture. I needed to do something small, something kind, something generous, just to restore my own faith in myself.

It was interesting after this encounter that I rode by at least another fifty homeless camps. While many of them were trashy and painful to witness I saw many where attempts were made to create some goodness, even a home, on a few square feet of dirt. One tent had a large American flag neatly draped over the entrance like a curtain. Another set of three camps were spotless with a trashcan nearby and three chairs sitting out front as if they were front porches. My favorite was the camp where a young man was grilling fresh tomatoes outside his tent and behind him was a pot of flowers. Not all that different from the decks that many of us have with a propane grill and potted flowers on the railing.

Yes, this is a hard time. But if we stop for moment and notice, we will see goodness. It hasn’t completely gone away.

Take the 2-wheeled goodness tour with me:

Goodness 2
Best English cucumbers at Salmon Creek Farms

Goodness 6
Cartlandia Food Court on the Springwater Corridor

Goodness 8
Yes, I even stopped to smell the roses!

Goodness 10
A good reminder even if the image stumps me.

Goodness 11
A free library amid a front yard garden in SE Portland

Goodness 13
A street closure for restaurant seating and physically distanced community gathering.

When it is Friggin’ HARD

It started last week with one email where a presbytery leader acknowledged, “Things have just gotten HARD,” emphasizing the word hard with capital letters.

GMC
May she rest in peace!

 

The email came the same morning I woke from a strange dream. Some of you may remember that my car was stolen from the presbytery parking lot last October. Last week I had a dream that another car, similar to the one from before, had gotten stolen, again from the presbytery parking lot. What was interesting about the dream was not the shocking violation, but how I responded to it. In the dream, as I told the staff about the event, I shared it as if it was just another routine matter to attend to. It was “another day at the office” kind of response. What was troubling about the dream was not the loss of the car, but my emotional detachment from the loss.

Dreams can be telling and this one had a message for me. I was showing signs of emotionally shutting down as way to cope with the onslaught of crisis and change. Apparently, attachment to our reality was too painful and the dream told me that I was starting to detach.

I would have just shared this with my therapist except for the fact that ever since then I keep seeing signs that what I am experiencing is more universal. It’s not just me.

bend pandemicThe day after the “HARD” email and the dream of detachment staff forwarded me an email that the Rev. Morgan Schmidt at Bend, First wrote on their Pandemic Partners Facebook page. In her post, she cited that her community had clearly reached the stage of disillusionment that is normal when facing crises. She named what everyone was feeling, writing:

We are tired.

We were ready for this to be over months ago, but our numbers are just getting worse, and we are frustrated that our leaders aren’t responding in cohesive, thoughtful, common-sense ways.

We are lonely. And even when we have social interactions, we find ourselves more awkward than ever.

We are angry. Just all-the-time-low-grade-simmering-angry. Heaven help the next person who looks at us the wrong way.

We are at a loss – about finances. About school this fall. About the deep ruptures and polarizations that are fracturing our society.

HARD, detachment, and disillusionment.

But it didn’t end there.

ContemplationThe very next day I opened a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that reported that 11% of Americans had serious thoughts of suicide in June. That is double what it was last year at this time. Even more troubling was the fact that symptoms of depression had quadrupled and anxiety symptoms had tripled in that same period.

Clearly a pattern was developing. The original “HARD” email was showing its face in a dozen little ways.

But it didn’t stop there.

Shameless PromoThe Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber shared her most recent prayer with us in her blog where she confessed to God, “It’s my turn to be depressed-as-hell, my turn to be afraid…my turn to be angry.” Then she prayed that God would give her the gift of being a non-anxious presence.

HARD, detachment, disillusionment, suicidal ideation, and depressed-as-hell.

These were the words that kept showing up in my dreams and in my email this past week.

I thought, “It’s time to be honest with ourselves.” Almost on cue, I received two more messages that confirmed what I was feeling. I opened an email from a colleague that included a link to a TED talk about the mental health benefits of telling our stories and being vulnerable to each other. The presenter, writer Laurel Braitman, was making the case for the healing power of sharing our stories.

ryan althaus
The Rev. Ryan Althaus of Sweaty Sheep

If that wasn’t enough to convince me that the way through this time was to become more honest, more vulnerable and more open to the HARDness, detachment, disillusionment and depressed-as-hell mood of this time a Presbyterian News Service article closed the deal. The article highlighted the story of the Rev. Ryan Althaus, the founder and director of Sweaty Sheep, a ministry built around recreation in Santa Cruz, CA. Ryan shared his own struggles with mental illness, his admission to a psychiatric hospital and his reminder that surviving HARD stuff is not best done by detaching or erecting psychological fortresses, but by being honest and vulnerable about how friggin’ hard it can be sometimes.

If the 11% suicide statistic is true that means about 1,475 of our members in Cascades Presbytery are having a really hard time and may be suffering in silence. That means that for every nine people you know at least one of them is struggling mightily and has thought about suicide in recent weeks. And if 11% of us have thought about suicide then most of the rest of us are having a really HARD time, starting to detach, feeling disillusioned, and may be depressed-as-hell.

Today is just a reminder…that we aren’t going to get through this time by saying, “I’m fine,” when actually we are dying inside and crying out for divine relief.

Today is just a reminder…that there is a lot of silent suffering around us and it is important to be sensitive to and aware of the pain that is there, but unspoken.

Today is just a reminder…that if you are feeling hopeless, there’s a good chance your friends and your neighbors are also feeling hopeless. Take the risk to share how friggin’ hard it is and give your friend a chance to lean on you just as you lean on her.

Today is just reminder…that the more we hide behind protective facades the more unbearable the pain is and the more we feel alone in the world.

Today is just a reminder…that Jesus didn’t hide from pain, but carried his cross all the way to resurrection and new life.

It’s a tough way to get there. In fact, it might even be HARD at times.

You are not alone.

We will do this together.

Don’t suffer in silence.

Let us help you. Let us help each other.

We need each other. We can’t do this alone.

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

“Wherever you are…”

“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

Those are words spoken by many churches at the beginning of worship as they communicate an inclusive welcome to a diversity of people. No one ever dreamed that “wherever you are” would actually mean people from all over the map. Generally, I think it means “wherever you are on the journey of faith.”

mapBut, increasingly I am hearing from pastors that online worship is now including extended families and friends from around the country and world. Long-time members have invited their parents, their children, their siblings and their friends to join them in worship. It has allowed loved ones who are separated by distance to make worship a family affair again.

This was not possible five months ago. It used to be a rare occasion where a member introduced their family to the congregation saying, “I am pleased to have my children and grandchildren visiting me from Virginia this week.” Now pastors are saying, “We welcome Scott from Florida, MaryAnn from Montana, Maya from Minnesota, and Surgit from Indiana.”

Actual location and geography matter less in an online world. The distance from home to church is as close as a Zoom link. Miles have no impact.

Zoom screenAnother sign that online connection is changing worship planning is seen in the number of churches who cancel their own worship altogether when their pastors are on vacation. Why pay a supply pastor to fill in and produce online worship when one can more easily just send out a Zoom link giving access to another congregation’s worship. Pulpit supply pastors allowed for congregations to worship in their own building while their own pastor was on vacation. Now, simply providing a link to another congregation’s worship effectively replaces the need for pulpit supply in some congregations.

It brings up the question just how important is location and geography in carrying out the mission of the Church. We have tended to start with the assumption that we are serving a particular location or region. When we built churches we assessed the needs of the people who lived in a certain area. But is the gift of this time to remind us to focus first on our essential mission and secondarily on whether our mission is limited to a location.

E-LearningThe church can be many things to people and not all of those things necessarily have to be limited to a certain location or region. A church can focus on being a learning community. There are many learning communities that are primarily online and then offer annual retreats for in-person learning and connection. A church can focus on being a serving community. Millenials will tell us that one does not have to be in proximity to others in order to commit to causes and to service. Many serving communities (non-profits) share a sense of mission, but participants and supporters are scattered throughout the country.

Where it gets more tricky for us in being a worshiping community and a caring community. Certainly there are ways to worship where we don’t have to be physically present to each other, but is something lost in translation. Certainly we can find ways to care for each other across the internet and through the mail, but will it ever replace being able to hold the hand of a dear friend and pray with her at the hospital bedside?

group on beachI don’t think that what we are discovering in this time means that we will completely go from in-person connections to virtual communities. I don’t think that this time will result in the complete suspension of our in-person communities in favor of online connections. But I do think that this time allows us to assess what parts of our ministry are best done in one location and with people of a certain area and which parts of our ministry are not location-dependent and can therefore reach people across the country and the globe.

Does this new time allow us to become modern missionaries bringing the gospel of good news, justice and peace, and liberation and redemption to the world beyond our geographical location?

All of this reminded me to return to the Great Ends of the Church found in our Book of Order (F-1.0304). Read through the six Great Ends of the Church and ask one simple question, “Is this Great End location-dependent or, given our access to a virtual world, an opportunity to reach formerly unreachable people?”

I leave you with the six Great Ends and that simple question applied to each one:

(1) the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;

(2) the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;

(3) the maintenance of divine worship;

(4) the preservation of the truth;

(5) the promotion of social righteousness; and

(6) the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.globe

“Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”

We will always hear those words differently now.

Wherever really does mean wherever.

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

God’s Runaway Train

God’s Runaway Train

TrainThat is the image that came to me this morning as I thought about the journey we have all been forced into in this awkward, troubling, and fertile time. I can’t help but think and feel that something really big is happening to us, among us, and around us right now.

Yesterday was a sobering and revealing day for me. I heard in the context of a meeting two different statistics that woke me up to a sobering reality. The strange thing is that it seems like every week I am having some new sobering-reality-wake-up-call and they just keep coming like waves in the ocean.

The two statistics that woke me up were these two realities:

  • On July 1, 2019 Millennials overtook Boomers as the largest generation and the percent of the U.S. population that was Millennial or younger was 52%, and;
  • In a Racism Index study white mainline Protestants showed higher levels of racist attitudes (69%) than white non-religious Americans (42%).

blindnessLately there has been a lot of talk about structural racism and structural bias. While I believe there is truth to these increasingly obvious realities I also feel a certain blindness to them—which is, of course, a big part of the problem—people just like me! Those of us who have racist attitudes by virtue of the DNA of our culture often can’t see them because it’s just the sea we swim in.

But hearing these two statistics woke me up to this reality just a little more and it was the first statistic that helped me see the second statistic.

While the church has long yearned to “get the young people back in church” I suddenly heard that refrain in a completely different light. I realized that the young people we keep talking about are now almost 40 years of age and now represent a majority of the U.S. population. Our refrain to get the young people back always felt like we were pondering, “How can we bring this loosely established minority group into our established majority community?” Hearing the 52% statistic made me realize that we have crossed a threshold. Now we might be asking, “How can our dwindling minority community be attractive to a growing majority demographic?” Those youths we keep yearning for now outnumber us.

assimilationThe statistic made me realize that there is a whole new structure emerging in our culture that is not dependent on our traditional structures or even values. For decades we have written books and offered workshops on “how to assimilate” new people into the church. I suddenly realized that in this new environment assimilation is the problem. Isn’t that what we are hearing? People don’t want to be assimilated into our culture. They don’t want to have to fit into OUR structure!

Why would a 52% growing majority younger demographic want to assimilate into a declining aging demographic?

And then the second statistic made sense to me. I could see it.

Why would a group that scores lower on racist attitudes want to assimilate into a group that scores 65% higher on racist attitudes?

gay menAs I thought about this, I remembered the comments of our featured speaker at the Lectionary Seminar in 2018 at Menucha. Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary New Testament scholar, Luis Menéndez-Antuña, was speaking about the shift in the LGBTQIA culture over the last three decades. He said that in the early years of the fight for gay and lesbian rights the chant was, “We want what you have. We demand equal rights.” He said the refrain today is, “Why would we want what you have? We demand you get to know us on our terms.”

What I keep hearing—finally—is a problem with structure. “We don’t want what you have! We want to create our own world and our own structure.”

And then I thought about the obvious implications of this:

Could these words be applied to our young people (meaning 40 and under!)?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to our secular white non-religious neighbors?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to our African American brothers and sisters?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to the LGBTQIA community?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to single and divorced people?

We don’t want what you have!

Could these words be applied to any person and any community who has felt that they don’t belong in the structures of the established church?

We don’t want what you have!

  • art image personMaybe it is time to quit trying to force the world to fit into our structures.
  • Maybe assimilation workshops are part of the problem.
  • Maybe it’s time to question whether our structures serve the cause of justice and peace, mirror the liberating message of the gospel, and bring greater glory to God.

Maybe it’s time to let others teach us and lead us and educate us.

TrainMaybe it’s time to get on board or get out of the way of God’s runaway train.

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

5 COVID-Fueled Shifts

COVID will accelerate weakening of the traditional religious institutions and practices that earlier generations relied on for answers. But the virus is also exposing new pathways for meaning and connection in our bruised and hurting world.

shiftThat sobering and hopeful paragraph closed an article, titled“Five COVID-Fueled Shifts in our Religious and Spiritual Landscape” in a Fetzer Institute newsletter. I think this article is important to read. But it won’t be easy or comfortable. It will challenge many of our congregations, but it should also give us glimpses into what opportunities this COVID time presents to us.

The article is written by the Rev. Sue Phillips,a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. I became especially interested in their work when I discovered that they consulted with judicatories who wanted to meet with their communities to re-imagine sacred space in their church buildings and contexts. They recognized that the language of “the sacred” was a common language between churches and communities providing a hopeful starting point for conversations and shared projects.

labI also became interested in Sacred Design Lab as more and more religious and spiritual institutions are employing the language of “labs” when labeling programs and agencies. The Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America supports a community-based ministry called Together Lab. The Presbytery of the Cascades was working on an “Innovation Lab” concept before the Rev. Morgan Schmidt from Bend, First inspired me to think more in playground images than laboratory images. The $1,000 Stimulus Grants were part our Innovation Playground initiative. The spirit of experimentation and laboratory-like learning environments are becoming the lens through which we are viewing ministry innovation.

I invite you to read this article by the Rev. Sue Phillips. You may not agree with everything here. You may not like everything you read, but I do think it is worth hearing from those who are studying religious trends especially related to COVID-19. They may be seeing trends that we are blind to because we are too close to the source.

The five shifts they point to are below and you can read a fuller explanation in the attached article. These would be great talking points for your Session, vision team or adult study. Read the full article here.

The Five COVID-fueled shifts:

  • Meaning Takes Center Stage
  • Traditional Delivery Pathways for Religious Life are Breaking Down
  • Community Can Be Home-Based
  • Spiritual Leadership is De-Professionalizing
  • Virtual Connection Can be Surprisingly Meaningful

Thanks for being my lab partner!

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

Putting the Protest Back in Protestant

I went as an observer and left as a participant.
I arrived ready to ponder; I left ready to protest.

PDX protests 6
Marching in front of the George Floyd Memorial, PDX, July 20

It took family and friends to alert me that something troubling was unfolding on the streets of Portland. My head was somewhere else. After postponing our March presbytery meeting, we had finally re-organized ourselves to be able to hold a two-day presbytery meeting after an eight month hiatus. This felt like a big deal. Weeks of prep went in to pulling off this first-ever virtual meeting with worship, communion, committee reports, storytelling, position approvals, and even a little Zoom style whispering in the pews.

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The sentiment of the people, PDX, July 20

But while we were focused on the ecclesiastical business at hand, Portland was being targeted for a show of force in a sort of federal muscle flexing. Of course, such a statement reveals my subjective opinion. It is a fact that federal agents descended on downtown Portland to curtail the nightly protests that have gone unabated for nearly two months. It is my opinion that they were here to flex their muscles and make a political point. I say this because our city and state leaders not only did not request their presence, but have specifically asked them to leave believing that they have escalated an already tenuous and fragile situation.

Governor Brown, in speaking to MSNBC, justified her request saying, “Frankly, in Oregon we solve problems by sitting down and de-escalating situations and engaging in dialogue.” Had the federal government offered to assist Oregon on her terms, I would likely have felt different. Coming in unannounced and employing tactics more suited to authoritarian regimes leads me to believe that this is more political theater muscle flexing than community problem-solving. I believe that we have been targeted for political gain.

As I said, I went to the protest on Monday night as an observer. Family and friends had called asking if I was okay and I wanted to know what was actually happening in my own city. I went as an observer. I left as one ready to protest.

Then it hit me.

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Illumined on the Justice Center by protesters, PDX, July 20

I am part of a denomination whose identity is rooted in protest. We are literally “Protest-ants.” Over 500 years ago, our ancestors were on-the-frontline kinds of Christians who challenged the pacacy over what they perceived as abuses of their power and authority. They finally said, “Enough is enough,” and put their bodies, their livelihoods and their reputations on the line. They decided that blind obedience to an authority was not faithful when that authority does not honor the privilege of office. So they did what their faith called them to do and gave us the name that has stuck with us—Protestants.

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Calling for systemic change, PDX, July 20

Of course, not everything in life must be protested. We do not protest for protest’s sake. We protest when authority has been abused and truth has become twisted. We protest when human life is no longer honored and human dignity is violated. We protest when politics become more about power than about people. We protest when we become pawns of a political agenda and a stage for political theater. We protest when we no longer act like a country based on democratic principles.

Is this the right time to live into our “protesting” heritage? Is this the time to worry less about security and more about justice? Is this the time to protest against every power that has perpetuated systemic racism, including church and state? Is this the time to not only work for, but to protest against?

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Graffiti on the Federal Building, PDX, July 20

I know that every congregation must find its own way through these questions. I know some may be tempted to dismiss this as a problem specific to liberal-leaning, progressive Portland. But do not wait until the federal government swoops into your town or city uninvited, unannounced and armed for conflict. The problem here in Portland is not the presence of federal agents. The problem is the total disregard for our local and state officials who did not ask for the “help.” The problem is the stunning erosion of our democratic processes and principles.

We have been here before. The Barmen Declaration of 1933 reminds us that the state can use force to maintain justice and peace. When force is used for anything other than that, the Church protests, draws a line in the sand and says, “No more” as the Confessing Church did nearly ninety years ago.

Celtic crossEven more clearly the Confession of 1967 says, “The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare.”

“They have to fight against…” There it is—a reference to our protest-ant nature. When those entrusted with power and authority endanger human lives, human dignity and human welfare we are called to act, called to fight, called to protest, called to suffer on behalf of a just world. This is our confessional faith.

Despite being a Protestant, I am not a protester by nature.

But I will not stay silent while my city is being used for political theater.

I will not remain mute while a democratically elected government terrorizes its own people.

I will not stand by while those entrusted with authority shamelessly abuse their power.

We have been here before. We know what to do.

I am a Protestant. And damn proud of it.

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

In trust…

In trust…

Over the years I have noticed that I often close my emails and letters with the closing signature line, “In trust…” It has been something that has evolved over time. Early in my ministry I most often closed with the words, “In Christ.” I liked this closing at the time. It felt inclusive for the people and community I was working with thirty years ago. Even though I knew that there was a measure of diversity in the congregations that I served, I felt like the final words “In Christ” reminded us that whether we were “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female” that we could still find our unity in the belief and language of being in Christ.

god bless youWhen I moved to a more rural area in my second call much of the community used “God Bless You” regardless of whether you were Christian or not. In the Presbyterian Church, however, I found that some members appreciated the salutation while others found it trite and so overused to be able to communicate much meaning. I began using the more general sounding “Blessings” as a way to connect with the “God Bless You” crowd and speak to those who wanted their spirituality without the perceived limits of God-talk.

I still use the “Blessings” language especially if my email or letter is specifically targeted to a Christian or religious audience. But more and more I am relying on the simple “In trust…” for most of my emails and letters. It seems to work for audiences that are specifically religious as well as audiences that are more secular or humanistic in nature. Trust is equally considered both a human value and a religious value.

path into unknownBut there is more to it and it has to do with the time in which we are living right now. It doesn’t matter whether one is a good pew-sitting Presbyterian or a happy-as-a-clam agnostic. We are all living in uncertain times. We are all in pilgrimage time. None of us, if we are honest with ourselves, has a clue about what life is going to look like in 12, 24, or 36 months.

Every time I sign off at the end of an email or a letter with the words “In trust…” I feel like I am speaking specifically to the time in which we are living and to the whole community. I feel like I am being a pastor not only to the church; I am being a pastor to the whole community. It was always how I imagined the pastorate should be—as much a voice to the community as a message to the church faithful.

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Coffee Culture!

This has been important to me. From the early years of ending my emails and letters with the closing, “In Christ” my attempt was to speak to as broad of an audience as possible. Over the years my closing line has evolved as our communities and churches have changed. “In Christ” eventually felt limiting as I moved from a part of the country that had a Christian majority to the Pacific Northwest where religious affiliation can’t be taken for granted. “God Bless You” felt the same way—too limiting if I was speaking to an audience beyond the church. Even the more general “Blessings” seemed slightly more inclusive, but it was still limited to a primarily religious audience.

ConnectionI write this not to advocate for a particular signature line for you or for your churches. The thing about signature lines is that they are personal. What works for me may not work for you. What works in your community may not work in the community just a few miles down the road. The important thing is not the words, but our ability to connect with each other in meaningful ways. The important thing for me is to convey that whether we are more religiously inclined or secular-focused that we are all in this together. We travel this path as one community, one people.

trustI can’t promise or predict what the future will look like. But I can promise that I will walk with you, no matter who you are and what you believe.

I can promise that I will live my life in trust and walk with you into an unknown future.

I wished I had more for you right now. But trust is just going to have to be good enough…at least for now.

In trust…

Brian

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