On the move…

Dear Readers,

This is going to sound like a cry for sympathy, but I assure you it is not!

Sellwood View
My Portland view–about to change!

Next week I am preparing to make a move from my Portland apartment (within a mile of the presbytery office) to an apartment in Oregon City where I should be able to see my grandchildren more and have easier access to country roads for my type of cycling.

Eight years ago as I was nearing the completion of my work at Eastminster in NE Portland I met separately with two presbytery executives to talk about my future pastoral possibilities. Both of them said the same thing, almost in identical words, “We have reached a point in the ministry where you either need to decide to commit to a location and take whatever work you can or commit to ministry and follow the work.”

This was important for me to hear. I still believed that a pastor could and should have both. We should be able to follow the work of ministry and not have to pull up roots! I know, it does sound a little naïve, doesn’t it? But I had carried that image from my childhood where I believed that one could have it all—follow God and stay put all at the same time. I believed that I could be rooted in the movement of God and forever rooted in a static place all at the same time.

These two wise executives told me the truth. “If you want to stay in ministry you have to be willing to move; if you want a single stable community you have to be willing to substitute teach, work at Starbucks, and do an interim here and there.”

grants pass sunset
Sunset in Grants Pass–serving Bethany 2015-17

I took their advice and I followed the call of ministry. Since that time eight years ago I have lived in five different communities and seven different houses/apartments. Next week will be my eighth household in as many years.

Again, this could sound like a plea for sympathy, but it is not. I really think of it more as a teaching moment. Eight years ago I decided that following the call was more important than being able to put roots down in one location. This was my choice! But it was also based on the growing reality that ministry is not static. Ministry is not confined to a certain community, a specific neighborhood, a confined location, and a beloved building. We have to admit that God is on the loose!

U-HaulDo I struggle with yet another move? Yes, of course! I can’t believe that I am going to put myself through this again. But nineteen months ago it felt like I needed to be close to the office as we were putting this new presbytery structure in place. Today I can no longer justify the Portland rents and, truth be told, I have two darling grandchildren that need their Geepa (okay, I probably need them more than they need me!). And we are experimenting with what it means for the presbytery office to be mobile and work from remote locations.

I write this because I do believe that we are in a different time in ministry. Eight years ago I would have loved to have stayed in Portland, but I also knew that it would likely mean that I would be forced to take work out of necessity rather than from a sense of calling. I would have to accept the work that kept me in a certain location rather than follow the work that reflected my deeper call.

I write this because this is not only my question, but I keep hearing it as your question as congregations: Do we follow the call of God wherever it leads us or do we limit our ministry to what we can do in our particular location and building?

church buildingEvery congregation is different. Every community is unique. For some congregations the church building may be your greatest spiritual asset. For other congregations your church building may be your great liability to following God’s call. Is your building a gift or a barrier? Only you can answer that question as you discern the movement of God in your community and among your people.

Eek! Just looked at the clock. Gotta run! The movers come in five days and I have lots of packing to do!

But don’t worry about me. I have become an expert at being on the move.

See you down the road…

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

When Hopelessness is God’s Cue

trust exerciseHave you ever participated in a team-building event and done one of those trust exercises that makes your palms sweaty and your heart start to race? You know the one I am talking about. The leader says, “Pick a partner. I want you to stand here with your eyes closed with your back to your partner. When I say, ‘Go,’ I want you to fall straight back trusting your partner to catch you before you hit the ground.”

It’s funny to watch others try to do it. Some teasingly ask, “Can I change partners?” Others check out the ground behind them to see what kind of grassy or sandy or rocky surface they might land on. Still others make a valiant effort at it only to find themselves bailing out as their body suddenly cries SOS. Usually, at least one partnered team pulls off the stunt eliciting whoops and hollers and then, one by one, each of the teams follow suit knowing that it is survivable.

If you have ever done this you know that there is a terrifying split second where you either chicken out or give yourself over to the radical experience of trust. It makes sense. You only have a split second to decide, “Do I trust myself or another person?” And it isn’t really a conscious decision. Your body will often overrule your mind.

DiscernmentI thought of this team-building exercise as I came across a line in Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment that is part of my assigned reading for my DMin. program. He writes, “When we humans are ready to give up hope and resign ourselves to inevitability, God intervenes and reveals completely new beginnings.”

This is one of the most hopeful and scary lines I have ever read. It is wonderfully hopeful in that Nouwen declares that we have a God who intervenes in our lives and is always at the ready to initiate new beginnings. It is terrifying in that apparently the path to get there requires us to “give up hope and resign ourselves to inevitability.”

Isn’t that interesting? Could it be that God doesn’t intervene until we make room for God to intervene? As long as we still think we are in control of our lives and our futures God will sit back and watch and think to Herself, “Look folks, I am ready when you are ready. All you have to do is let go, fall back and let me catch you.”

Nouwen’s line reminded me of the first step of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous—“We admitted that we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable.” In a published history of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement the writers admitted that they only wrote about the “low bottom” cases saying that, “many less desperate alcoholics tried A.A., but did not succeed because they could not make the admission of hopelessness.”

rock bottomWhy is this the case? Why do we have to hit rock bottom before we are willing to let God or others help us out? Why do alcoholics wait until they have nearly destroyed everything important to them before they admit they can’t do this on their own? Why is the trust exercise so easy to understand and so difficult to actually do?

I don’t have the answer to that, but I do know it to be true. It was true when I worked in hospice. Families, although they were offered hospice care months earlier, didn’t accept it until it was obvious there was no way out of this except acceptance of the end of life. It was true when I worked with adjudicated youth who wouldn’t accept the court’s conditions until they reached that point where it was either prison time or “shape up!” It seems to be true for some of our churches who will go to all kinds of lengths to bargain their way out of loss and decline rather than to admit that their only hope is to finally fall into hopelessness and the inevitability of projected futures.

We often say that our “hope is in the Lord” and at the same time depend on our own well-thought out plans. It’s like saying we believe that our friend is going to catch us, but refusing to actually fall backwards. Or committing to quitting drinking, but being unwilling to throw that last bottle of expensive whiskey out. Placing our hope in the Lord means we have to go all in! No putting our hands out when we fall…just in case. No whiskey bottles hidden in the garage…just in case. If God is going to intervene, we have to give it all to God.

hanging from cliffIt’s like that tired old sermon illustration of the man who is hanging on to a branch over the edge of cliff. He calls for help and the voice from above says, “This is God. Let go and I’ll catch you.” After more thought the man cries out again, “Anyone else up there?” There has to be an easier way, we think. Henri Nouwen and team-builders and Alcoholics Anonymous tell us there is no easier way. God will wait until we are all in!

My friends, two years ago I accepted this position because I was convinced that both my new church development experience and my hospice experience were going to be needed. I can tell you that the two are inextricably tied together. My new church development experience followed a painful period of loss. And every loss that I have worked with has ended up with some sort of a new beginning.

Of course, this isn’t really news to any of us. We are a people who trust in the core Biblical narrative of death and resurrection. We already know that you can’t have one without the other.

SO……..go ahead. fall back. let god catch you on the way down.

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

Responding to the Next Dorian

Hurricane damageThe pictures of the devastation in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian are sobering, saddening and sickening. It’s hard to imagine what it takes for a people and for communities to rebuild after such utter and complete destruction. It was brought home to me when Prime Minister Hubert Minnis was interviewed and explained that the devastation was so complete that even their emergency vehicles and services were swept away. Then on CNN this morning a reporter was quoted as saying, “The cruelty of this storm did not distinguish between rich and poor, but already, the recovery has.” As Matthew 25 Christians, that hurts to hear.

I have a dream. Someday when I hear news like this I will walk into the presbytery office, make a single call and say, “Jesse or Jennie, did you hear the news about the Bahamas? Please get your Presbyterian Disaster Response Team ready to go. We are going to be needed.”

Mission tripsBut my dream doesn’t stop there. We know that the average age of our members continues to rise and being able to fly off to remote parts of the world and do back-breaking work is becoming more difficult every year. We know that congregations who, at one time, sponsored mission trips to areas devastated by natural disasters can no longer put a whole team together. We also know that the average age of Oregonians is a full three decades younger than the average age of our members.

Yes, my dream goes further. Someday I want to walk into the presbytery office and take this call, “Rev. Heron, I am not a member of any of your churches, but I hear that you Presbyterians put disaster teams together. Our family wants to help out. What do we need to do to get on one of your teams?” We can organize. They can work! We all can serve.

I admit that this dream is a long ways off, but we have a start. Sheila Cunningham of the John Knox church in Keizer also shares a vision for putting a presbytery-wide disaster response team together. Many of our churches will be hearing from her in the coming weeks and months as she brings our churches together around a common mission.

passion led us hereI share this with you because this is partly how vision is emerging in Cascades presbytery. We are looking for people who have energy, passion, a specific mission, and a call for serving God in particular ways. If you are interested in helping out with the organization of a presbytery-wide Disaster Response Team let me know and I will pass your name along to Sheila.

But more than that. If you have some wild and crazy idea of a mission or ministry that you would like to initiate in the presbytery give me a call. Let’s talk and let’s dream. We have nearly 14,000 members and 96 churches in this presbytery. We may be aging, but we are far from dead!

Let’s unleash the creativity, vision and passion that still exists within this presbytery.

Dorian won’t be the last hurricane we experience. So, let’s get ready for the next one.

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

P.S. If you want to support relief and recovery efforts in the Bahamas right now you can donate at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance site using this link: https://pma.pcusa.org/donate/make-a-gift/gift-info/DR000194/

Legacy is about LIFE!

Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Judah to…

Generation after generation carrying out the legacy of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah.

passing the torchThe Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of passing the torch, passing the legacy of God’s abiding presence from one generation to another. The Gospel of Matthew begins with the rather numbing recitation of how that legacy threaded its way through forty-two generations between the original covenant with Abraham and the arrival of one Jesus of Nazareth.

I share this with you because I have noticed that we in the presbytery have become nervous around the language of legacy. I have heard it said many times, “I don’t like the language of legacy. It sounds too much like death.”

It’s an interesting comment, really, because we all know that death is a given. Legacy is a choice.

assembly lineI have a theory of why legacy sort of became a dirty word in our churches. I think it is because we had the luxury of being lazy for a time. I think there was a time that dates back about two generations where the church had a smooth-operating legacy plan (we didn’t call it that, but that is what it was). Like a factory assembly line we could guarantee that the church’s narrative would be carried on as long as we had Sunday School classes for children, confirmation for teenagers, college chaplains for the university-bound and baptism for the next wave of children. Wash, rinse, repeat and do it all over again.

Like our ancient story and the forty-two continuous generations, as long as all those pieces were in place we felt like we could guarantee that the covenant that was made with Abraham would be passed on to our children and then their children and then their children’s children and the church’s living legacy would be carried on for all eternity. We did legacy without even having to think about it.

The church has always been about carrying on God’s legacy from one generation to generation. And I think for most of our history the language of legacy was rooted in the language of life. It was about making sure that the gospel of life didn’t die with our particular generation.

But something happened.

children classroomOur airtight approach to legacy started faltering in the late 1960’s. We could no longer count on our children and our grandchildren to carry out our legacy by filling our Sunday School classrooms, memorizing our catechisms for confirmation and becoming active, pledging members of our congregations. In other words, our legacy model was failing.

And then I think we made a mistake. In response, we started talking about how to grow our shrinking congregations rather than how to pass our legacy on in a new way. We decided to tighten our grip on the future we wanted rather than to loosen our grip, let go, and entrust the future to God. And as we tightened our grip the language of legacy lost its life-giving power. Legacy became a scary word as we reserved it only for “dying” congregations.

mountain topIf I had my way I would require every congregation to answer the question, “What will be our legacy in five, ten and twenty years?” Some may think that I have too much of a preoccupation with death. But it just isn’t true. I have a deep addictive desire for life. But I also believe that life, Jesus-like life, is only possible when we are honest about the reality of death.

Remember, death is a given. Legacy is a choice.

I can’t change the reality of death, but I can invite you to think about your ongoing living legacy.

  • Maybe your church’s legacy will be once again filling Sunday School classrooms with children so that the next generation can carry on your Christian ministry in much the same style as you have become accustomed.
  • Maybe your church’s legacy will be planted with the next generation of retirees moving into your community.
  • Maybe your church’s legacy will be the Matthew 25 projects that you have initiated all over your community.
  • Maybe your church’s legacy will be the community ministries that will grace your building long after your congregation is gone.
  • Maybe your church’s legacy will be the radical story of trust that gets told all over the presbytery as you live into God’s unsettling and wonderful emerging future.

Remember, legacy is not about death. Legacy only acknowledges the reality of death in service of the gospel of life!

So, my friends, let’s get to livin’! Future generations will thank us.

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

We All Have Scraps!

“If you push me far enough, all I really know is that he was a fine fisherman.”

“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”

fly fishingThat quote is from Norman Maclean’s book, A River Runs Through It, as he and his Presbyterian father reflect on Norman’s deceased brother, Paul. Paul was a gambler and a drunk, an occasionally good journalist, and an unusually gifted fly fisherman. Norman, his more successful brother, when reflecting on Paul’s life was only able to pull up his fishing skills as worth mentioning. Their Presbyterian minister father corrected him, saying, “You know more than that. He was beautiful.”

I had the pleasure of visiting an old friend this past week. We have been through a lot together in the more than 25 years that we have shared life and a friendship. I was sharing with him in a moment of self pity how I was concerned that eventually I would look back on my life and all I would be able to say is, “Yep, I learned how to survive.” He looked at me and said, “Brian, you have created a beautiful life. You are one of my champions.”

shack in mountainsThey were words that I needed to hear. He was speaking of my long history of taking challenges and obstacles and turning them into gifts. Rather than allowing myself to be crippled by loss I have turned the experience of loss into a vocational calling walking with people and organizations facing grief. Rather than simply surviving difficult transitions, I have specialized in helping others face and negotiate transitions since it seems to be what I know!

I don’t say this to blow my own horn. I write this because I have discovered that there is something powerful about taking the real material of our lives and making something beautiful out of it. I write this because I am convinced that every one of us and every one of our congregations already have all the resources, all the materials, and all of the tools we need to create a beautiful piece of art. Art often comes out of working with whatever materials we already have on hand.

I was having a conversation with one of my colleagues in another presbytery and during the course of the conversation he said, “The biggest gift our presbytery has is that we have no money.” And he meant it seriously. What he was saying is that many years ago his presbytery realized they were going to have to live within their budget year to year. No reserves to lean on. Out of that came all kinds of creativity around building relationships, a deepening presbytery culture, and programs that relied increasingly on people power. The lack of money became their gift!

elderly womanIt is so easy for us to fall into the trap of scarcity or deficit thinking. We look at empty classrooms and see what we used to have rather than the new opportunity that is staring us right in the face. We say, “If only we had this…” and do nothing rather than saying, “This is what we do have…” and do something. We think bigger is better and forget that God prefers to work with David, the shepherd, rather than with Goliath, the giant. We too easily adopt the notions that beauty is reserved for the youth, the new and improved, and the picture perfect.

It is a profound line that Norman’s Presbyterian minister father said when reflecting on his younger son’s rough and tumble and “less successful” life than Norman’s. Norman was only able to see his brother’s fishing skills as his only redeeming quality whereas his father looked at the scraps of his life and said, “He was beautiful.”

I am convinced that creating beauty is not the result of having all the right materials. I am convinced that beauty emerges out of using the real material, the scraps that are already on hand.

What if every one of our congregations already believed that you had everything you needed to create a beautiful life, a beautiful community, and a beautiful ministry? There are no deficits; only opportunities!

old manI believe this. I believe it because the Bible is full of stories of God using what was already on hand to write the story of salvation. I believe it because other presbyteries are writing stories of success that have emerged out of a lack of something rather than an abundance of something. I believe it because the most beautiful parts of my own life have been crafted out of the most difficult parts of my life.

I believe it because God is less concerned with the size of our checking accounts, our buildings and our congregational attendance. God is more concerned with the size of our hearts.

Beauty is created out of the scraps of our lives. And we all have scraps!

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

Trusting in God’s Seasons

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1

Over the years this particular Hebrew Scripture has really grown on me. I think there is something about aging that invites us to have gratitude not only for those things in life that went exactly as expected, but also for those things that were unexpected, disappointing and, quite honestly, painful.

Summer harvestI would never want to return to my adolescent years and yet I am deeply grateful for that awkward period of pretending that I knew myself better than I actually did as I tried to carve out an identity in the world. I certainly don’t want to return to the exhaustion of raising young children, yet I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. And I wouldn’t wish on anyone the final months of my mother’s life as we dealt with the daily anxiety of hospitalizations, falls, rehab facilities, and end-of-life decisions, and yet I am deeply grateful for this season of her life and our shared life.

autumnOur lives seem to be lived in seasons and, if this is the case, it appears that my life has partly entered the autumn and another part early spring. I will be sixty years old this October (yes, I know, I don’t look a day over 58!) and my body tells me that is true. I can clearly feel that I am entering into the fall of my life. Yes, it is still early fall. I think winter is still far off in the distance, but I can tell that my body will never return to that summer-like conditioning that I knew for the first thirty years of my adulthood. It takes me a full half hour of yoga every morning just to get my joints oiled up enough to move freely through the day. I used to race up hills on my bike recording my best times. Now I am just pleased if I get to the top at all. And staying up into the wee hours of the morning is just impossible for me unless I am prepared to be a zombie for three days straight.

At the same time, spring has unexpectedly rushed into my life with the gift of two grandchildren. I had always heard that grandchildren bring a joy into one’s life that can’t be compared to any other. I know that joy and it really is as good as people build it up to be. The mere mention of their names (Elliot and Bridget) spreads a wide nerdy smile across my face. As far as I can see now I feel like spring is going to last forever.

WinterBut I know that is not true. I am sure that my grandchildren will eventually become such a part of my regular life that it will start to feel like summer and I know that my body will eventually give way to winter before any hope of an eternal spring can emerge again.

I write this to you because I have this deep sense that what our congregations are called to in this time is to trust the spiritual wisdom of Ecclesiastes and what nature teaches us about the eternal cycle of the seasons.

This may seem obvious to you, but I want to suggest to you that most of us have adopted a corporate paradigm of success and failure. Most of us, without thinking, assume that the church should follow the GDP where we expect a 2-3% growth rate every year. Anything less than that represents failure. We invite in spring and summer and resist fall and winter. But I don’t think God made the world that way. I don’t think God made us that way. I don’t even think God made congregations that way.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

SpringtimeIf you are in the springtime of your congregational life with lots of new initiatives, then praise God!

If you are in the summertime of your congregational life settled into a nice comfortable predictable rhythm, then praise God!

If you are in the autumn of your congregational life and things are just not what they used be and you are having learn to let go of former expectations, then praise God!

And if you are in the winter of your congregational life where your only hope is God’s eternal spring, remember that our faith is based on death and resurrection (and the promise of spring!), so praise God!

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

It’s all good.

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

When to Fix; When to Enjoy

It is Tuesday afternoon and I am sitting at a picnic table at Riverside Park in Grants Pass. A large canopy is stretched out above me saving me from the 97-degree heat. The Ice Cream truck is parked nearby and I have now heard the same 15-second tune at least fifty times putting me into an unwelcome trance. Dozens of children are playing on the Jungle Jim and running through the fountains as parents and older siblings watch from shady benches nearby. And I am calling this work!

Mobile office
Mobile office at Valley of the Rogue State Park

I am experimenting with a mobile office so that I can connect better with the full reach of the presbytery. It is no secret that arranging time with presbytery staff is a lot easier for the fifty churches that are situated within an hour of the Portland office. Already my experience has been that meetings with church leaders can often be arranged within a couple of weeks for Portland-centric churches. It can take me weeks, if not two or three months, to make the same commitment to those churches two, three, four, and even five or six hours away.

 

But really this blog is not about that. This blog is about why I decided this morning that the schedule I had put together last night before bed suddenly felt like it needed spontaneous rearranging.

I had anticipated committing the bulk of the first part of the day to work—settling in on my early morning spiritual discipline of yoga, meditation and prayer journaling followed by a full morning of catching up on four days of emails that had built up over a long weekend. Then I would commit to the first draft of this week’s Holy Breadcrumbs.

I wanted to get out on my bike late in the afternoon and also didn’t feel that I would be able to ride with a clear conscience and a light heart until I had answered emails, set up future appointments and got a good start on my Holy Breadcrumbs blog. I was going to use the bike ride as a reward for feeling caught up on work responsibilities.

But I made a mistake.

protest

I opened up Facebook (I don’t even remember what drew me there except maybe some addictive habit). A post about Portland’s preparation for potential violence between far right extremists and far left extremists this weekend caught my eye. Ted Wheeler, Portland’s mayor, reassured the public that all 1,000 police officers would be on duty this weekend preparing for the worst.

 

I became nearly emotionally paralyzed. In my efforts to better serve the presbytery I hooked up my camper for a full week connecting with congregations and church leaders in the south. But the news of a potential face off in Portland between far right and far left political forces left me pondering, “What is my role as a church leader in these critical and defining moments of our country?”

  • Am I to wear my clergy stole and collar as a symbol of and a call to peaceful protests?
  • Am I to make sure that I stay close to our Portland churches just in case this potential violence erupts into something larger?
  • Am I to cut short my southern trip so that I can stand with our ecumenical partners who plan to make their public presence known?

My head and heart were spinning. I want to live up to the name of Presbyter for Vision and Mission. I want to go the extra mile to make sure that I connect with all of our congregations—Portland-centric and the other half that are scattered across 65,000 square miles. I want to be a healing, hopeful and peaceful presence in the midst of the growing insanity that is engulfing our communities and our nation.

Mobile office-inside
Inside the mobile “office”

But my self-imposed expectation to be all things visionary was clearly too much and I suddenly found myself changing directions for the day. I left the work sitting on my computer and on my small portable camper table. The bike ride that was going to be the reward for getting my work done at the end of the day suddenly became the thing that I had to do to break out of this emotional paralysis. I just couldn’t think straight.

 

As I took off, my mind immediately went to the texts where Jesus retreated to the mountain, or the other side of the lake, or into the garden to pray. Those texts resonated with me in a way that I had never experienced before. I always appreciated those texts as signs of a healthy spiritual life balancing the need for personal retreat with active engagement. But not until this morning did I understand how retreating can be as much about restoring and saving our sanity in the midst of a growing craziness. This was not about balance. This was about emotional survival. I simply could not take any more information in.

I am starting to understand what real faith is. For the first time I feel like I know what the psalmists meant when they said, “We put our hope in the Lord. (Psalm 33)” It’s hard to find hope in a political culture that is increasingly at war with itself. It’s hard to find hope in our own structures, our own laws, and our own common agreements as they seem to no longer be able to contain our behavior. And it’s hard to find hope in my own abilities as the sheer volume of things that just aren’t right leaves me spinning and running for cover.

Biking Rogue
Biking in the hills of the Rogue River Valley

So this morning I make a quick, spontaneous and utterly good decision.  I went to the garden to pray. I turned the pedals for twenty miles and let the air caress my body and my soul. My eyes followed prayerfully as a flock of geese flew just overhead next to a gurgling creek paralleling a farmer’s hayfield. I replaced thoughts of protests and violence with the sheer enjoyment of a body in rhythmic motion. I breathed in and out relishing the simple life-giving presence of oxygen. I let my soul sing and my spirit soar.

 

Rather than focusing on fixing what was wrong with the world I spent a couple of hours bathing in the world’s goodness.

I don’t think it needs to be an either/or proposition. We just need to know when it’s time to fix the world and when it’s time to just enjoy it.

This morning I enjoyed. This afternoon I am making an attempt at fixing.

It reminds me of the Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

This faith thing is starting to feel awfully real.

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

This is my body broken…

“I’m done.”

Those were the words from one of my colleagues in another presbytery as she reacted honestly from the gut to the horrific weekend of mass murders in El Paso and Dayton.

thoughts and prayersI immediately resonated with her. “I’m done. I’m done. I’m done,” I repeated over to myself as if I was meditating on some newfound mantra. I could not even mouth the usual words, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” They were stuck, hiding somewhere as if it weren’t safe to show their face. No longer did those words feel sympathetic as if I was joining my heart with the aching hearts of sisters and brothers, parents and children. They had an almost cruel sound to them as if I should expect a “F— you” or an angry middle finger salute for even uttering them.

“I’m done,” I said to myself repeatedly.

My heart is no longer big enough to contain this much grief. I can’t find any more room for mere empathy and understanding. My soul has no more room for this level of heartache and pain. I can’t even feel sympathy. As much as I care for the victims and their families I seem to care more for myself. Don’t ask me to repeat this ritual of thoughts and prayers again tomorrow or next week or next month. I can’t do it. My heart is not big enough for that. I cannot care for this weekend’s victims and also have enough compassion left over to be ready for next weekend’s victims.

BulletsThis has to end. This has to end because it is killing our American soul. This has to end because it is tearing us apart. This has to end because no society can survive with her people simply waiting and wondering when it will be their turn. This has to end because I don’t have the capacity for that much grief and that much pain and that much trauma. My body and my psyche simply will not allow it.

So I’m done. I am done making promises from a safe distance to keep people in my thoughts and prayers as they bury their dead. I am done promising that a few moments will be kept sacred on Sunday to pray for the dead, the injured, and the traumatized communities. I am done keeping a template handy where all I have to do is insert a different date, a different number, different names and a different community into my prayers for the people.

I don’t know where you are at. Maybe you were done months before me and for that I applaud you. Maybe you still have it in you to offer your thoughts and prayers while hoping that someone–a legislator, a politician, a religious authority, or even God’s own self will do something to stop the insanity.

But I no longer believe thoughts and prayers are enough. In fact, without action the words sound hollow and even cruel. This is not going to stop. Some predict it will only escalate as would-be murderers plan to outdo each other like athletes pushing to break the next record.

Immigrant protestI write this to you because if you too cannot utter the words “thoughts and prayers” without feeling sick to your stomach and without tearing up I am ready to join with you. I will help you organize. I will promote your efforts at conversation and advocacy and protest. I will draw us together as one community uniting as one powerful voice pushing against this murderous tide. I will support efforts at having a presbytery public witness. I will do anything I can do to end this insanity.

Goddammit, I want to feel normal again.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do still pray for our nation. I do still ache for victims and families and best friends. I do still feel terribly awful and broken up by the ripping of flesh, the tearing of families and the trauma of communities.

But I am already thinking of next week’s mass murder. And I don’t have it in me to start pre-planning for another round of thoughts and prayers. That will not stop the bullets.

I’m done with thoughts and prayers. Bodies are being sacrificed for the cause of hatred. Now it will take some of us, the faithful, sacrificing our bodies for love.

“This is my body broken for you. Do this, do what you have to do, in remembrance of me.”

Thanks for the education, but I need a home!

Did you know that there are still 66 Presbyterian-affiliated colleges and universities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico?

C of I
The College of Idaho, one of our Presbyterian-affiliated colleges and my alma mater.

At one time in our history higher education was one of the highest, if not the highest, commitment to mission that we had. It’s astounding to think about the broad vision, the denominational momentum, and the deep financial investment that it took to create colleges all across the country. It’s refreshing to think of a time when a single mission focus seemed to capture the hearts, imaginations and faith of Christians across the country and from every theological corner.

I doubt that we will have a similar resurgence of commitment to higher education that shows up in the development of dozens of campuses and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. That was a good story for its time. But I do wonder if we are witnessing a similar phenomenon unfolding among us.

If higher education was the mission focus of the 19th and 20th centuries might affordable housing be the focus that is appearing before us in the 21st century?

I have been clear that I believe much of the future vision of this presbytery will be based not on some far-reaching ambitious plan, but on following the energy of people and congregations in our own presbytery. And this is one of those areas where there is growing energy, enthusiasm, passion and commitment.

I am sure that I have not discovered all the quiet corners in our presbytery where addressing affordable housing has become a major mission focus for our congregations. But these are the ones I do know about. I want to hear about the ones I have missed as well. Give me a chance to tell your story!

  • First Step trailer
    First Step trailer, Church of the Siuslaw, Florence

    Church of the Siuslaw, Florence—taking the lead in a community partnership called First Step. As part of the pilot for this project two units are located on Church of the Siuslaw property and a separate property has been purchased to expand the program to many more units (read article here).

  • First Presbyterian, Astoria—congregation members have purchased a building in downtown Astoria to ease the need for low-cost housing for workers who cannot afford housing in the coastal town (read article here).
  • First Presbyterian, Portland—the long-standing Julia West House is being considered for redevelopment as affordable housing and supportive services in downtown Portland.
  • Central Presbyterian—played a leading role in the development of Opportunity Village, a tiny house community for the homeless and partner with Square One Villages, where former Central Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Lorne Bostwick, serves as the board president.
  • Cottage Grove house
    The first of thirteen tiny houses at Cottage Village, Cottage Grove

    First Presbyterian, Cottage Grove—took the lead with Square One Villages in the development of the Cottage Village Coalition for the development of a 1.2 acre tiny homes community for 13 homes. The Cottage Village Coalition received a $100,000 Birthday Offering grant from the Presbyterian Women.

  • New Ministries Team—The Presbytery Leadership Commission has endorsed the plans of the New Ministries Team to partner with the Leaven Community Land and Housing Coalition for the potential development of the nine-acre former Cooper Mountain property into affordable housing and community space (note: final plans would have to receive presbytery approval).

Do you have vacant property that could be developed into affordable or transitional housing?

Do you have the vision to develop affordable housing in your community?

Do you have an unused building or church space that could be converted into temporary or transitional housing?

Are you looking for a mission where you can feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, and renew hope for the working poor?

There are people and churches in our presbytery who are taking the lead on what has become one of America’s most disturbing crises—the lack of affordable housing for the homeless, the working poor and even many middle class families.

At one time Presbyterians took the lead on building institutions of higher education. It is one of our great legacies. I wonder if God is calling us to something new. I wonder if affordable housing is our next big adventure in mission.

The energy in the presbytery tells me it just might be so.

You Just Have to See This!

Adaptive Change in Eight Minutes!

You just have to watch this video of a young man trying to ride a bike that has had only one simple change—when you turn the handlebars to the right the wheels turn to the left and vice versa. You can find it here at The Backwards Brain Bicycle (click here to view).

How long did it take him to digest this knowledge? Less than a few seconds. Understanding what the welders had done took no time at all.

backwards brain bikeHow long did it take him to understand the change? Are you ready for this? It took him a full eight months until he could successfully ride a bike where the steering assumptions had been reversed. Interestingly enough, he also tried this on his 6-year old son who, because of his childhood brain elasticity, was able to accomplish the same feat in two weeks. Eight months for dear old dad who had been riding for 25 years and two weeks for his youngster who had three years of cycling experience.

I am not going to say much more about this. I really want you to just watch the video and then either think about it yourself or, better yet, have a discussion with others using the following questions:

  • In what ways has making changes in your church felt like riding a Backwards Brain Bicycle?
  • destin sandlinDestin Sandlin says, “My thinking was in a rut.” In what ways might your thinking about how to be church be in a rut as well?
  • Destin Sandlin says, “Once you have a rigid way of thinking in your head sometimes you cannot change that even if you want to.”
    • Is this true?
    • In what ways is it true?
    • In what ways might it not be true?
    • What role does the Holy Spirit play in change?
  • Destin Sandlin says, “I had set out to prove that I could free my brain from a cognitive bias, but at this point I am pretty sure that all I proved was that I could only re-designate that bias.” If it is true that we cannot free ourselves from biases then what biases do you want your church to adopt?
  • Destin Sandlin says he learned three things from this experiment:
    • “I learned that welders are often smarter than engineers.” Who are the welders in your congregation?
    • rubiks cube“I learned that knowledge does not equal understanding.” Knowledge of the “backwards brain bicycle” took Destin a few seconds to get. Understanding of the bicycle took him eight months. What does this mean for how your church will respond to the scripture, “In Christ, the old has passed away; behold, the new has come!”
      • What is the difference between knowledge and understanding?
      • What is the process of going from knowledge to understanding?
    • “I learned that truth is truth no matter what you think about it. So be careful how you interpret things because you’re looking at the world with a bias whether you think you are or not.” What are the biases that you can’t even see yet? (Okay, I admit it—that is a trick question!)

Church consultants tell us that mainline Protestant Christianity is in an “adaptive change” climate where the old tools no longer work. We need new assumptions and new biases. This video is the best example I have seen of what “adaptive change” actually looks like and how it works (and how hard it is!).

From now on I am not going to try to explain adaptive change. I am just going to say, “Can you and your church ride a backwards brain bicycle?”

If you can, you are way ahead of the curve!