Goodbye, for now…

I started hinting at this blog post last January when I mentioned in a former blog post that the image of Holy Breadcrumbs may have served its purpose. I began writing under this title in January of 2018 as I became convinced that a new vision for the presbytery was not going to come from a handful of bright, creative visionaries sitting around a boardroom table. I felt strongly that in the current context of ongoing change and uncertainty that a vision was going to have to be teased out.

pathwayRather than having one comprehensive vision out ahead of us, I felt that we would have to arrive at our vision “one holy breadcrumb at a time.” I come with experience in pilgrimages and one of the great lessons from the pilgrim life is one learns to trust the path right in front of our feet without the certainty of knowing where one might get their next meal or lay their head at night.

But today I need to say goodbye, at least for now.

It is now clear that the period of teasing out a vision and loosening the ecclesiastical soil of the presbytery has run its course. It is time now for strategy and planning. It is time to move from a plethora of possibilities to a commitment to specific plans. It is time to turn potential dreams into budget line items.

I will continue to communicate with the presbytery as we move through this time. But I imagine that my communications will fall more in the category of updates, progress reports, as well as attempts at making meaning of our emerging life together.

Woodburn 1I do know that I will continue to write even as my particular voice will shift. All of my pastoral work prior to taking this position was as a solo pastor. The weekly rhythm of scriptural reflection, sermon writing and preaching is in my bones. When I first accepted this position one of the members of the church where I was serving was thrilled for me but also said, “This doesn’t mean you will quit preaching, does it? I can’t imagine you not preaching.” I told him that I would find a way somehow to keep my weekly practice alive. My weekly Holy Breadcrumbs served that purpose.

I enjoy the writing and many of you say you look forward to it weekly. So, I imagine that I will come back at some point under a new title and with a more appropriate theme. Maybe the need will be to share stories of where God is showing up as we step into a new vision. Maybe the need will be to continue to look at the world through the lens of faith and spiritual eyes. Maybe the need will be to continue to provide a hopeful word as the church loses one kind of life on the path to living into a new kind of life.

As with all things pilgrimage-related, however, the landscape changes. Needs shift. The path goes another direction. One thing disappears; another emerges.

So, goodbye, for now.

I’ll see you around the next corner.

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

Lightening the Load

I am on vacation right now. This is a re-post from last fall. The topic still seemed timely.

Hwy 50The date: August 26, 2011.

I 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.

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

A Sneaky Holy Spirit

future of faithIt was ten years ago that I read Harvey Cox’s book “The Future of Faith,” where he attempts to capture what he calls three different ages of Christendom. I remember when I read it and felt like little lights started going off in my brain. He describes what he believes are three epochal ages of the Church from the Age of Faith, a 400-year period right after the time of Jesus, the Age of Belief, a 1500-year period extending into the 20th century and now what he loosely calls the Age of Spirit.

He writes that this third age is still in formation and seeking definition, but that there are distinct features that are emerging that mark this as a separate and new age. Of primary importance is the lessening of the import of what people believe in in favor of three emerging trends—how people live, how they treat one another, and how they experience the divine through spiritual practices and ritual.

This is really important.

Protest JesusThis was especially on display in 2020 as many Christians felt that they had more in common with their secular sisters and brothers than they did with fellow Christians. Christians on the right and the left didn’t recognize each other while people at various protests both right and left felt an affinity for each other even if they didn’t share the belief in the same God.

Pentecost is this Sunday when we celebrate the narrative of the Holy Spirit sweeping the early Christians off their feet and into a movement to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the whole world. While not everyone may recognize this high holy day in the Christian calendar, the experience of Pentecost seems to be taking root in our time.

This seems to be Holy Spirit time. People are learning to partner with each other not because they share a common language or a similar belief, but because they, as Harvey Cox might say it, share common values about “how we live, treat one another and experience the divine.”

doveI firmly believe that the God presence is alive and well in our communities. I believe that Jesus is still stirring up people for extravagant love, radical peace and divine justice. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is showing up in non-profits, civic organizations, and community networks.

I think Harvey Cox might be right that this is the Age of the Spirit. Pentecost is our daily reality.

Just don’t be surprised if Pentecost doesn’t come with a Christian label.

The Holy Spirit can be sneaky that way.

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

The Other 53%

It is a strange phenomenon that when I am in the church I feel like I am in the minority and, when I am engaged in the larger community, I feel like I am part of the majority.

broken heartI am speaking, of course, to my marital status. I remember nearly thirty years ago when one of my colleagues was going through a divorce while he was serving a church. It was touch and go. In the end, he retained his position and the congregation slowly adjusted to his new reality. But, it forced the congregation to ask, “Can a minister adequately counsel couples and with integrity perform wedding ceremonies if he himself could not successfully maintain a marriage?”

We have come a long ways since then. That was nearly three decades ago. But while there is more acceptance for the divorced among us I don’t believe that our ecclesiastical culture has fully come to terms with the normalcy of divorced, separated, single and widowed persons among us (the exception, of course, being widowed, as it is the one “no fault” category).

Men kissingIf the question then was about this pastor’s ability to counsel couples and perform weddings that same question today could be, “Can a married pastor adequately speak to and address the needs of unmarried people?”

  • What does a married pastor say to the 42 year-old recently divorced person who comes in with “how to date” questions?
  • How does a married pastor counsel a person who is discerning whether to end a long-term romantic relationship?
  • Can a married pastor adequately counsel the single person on sexual intimacy and boundaries?
  • Can a pastor in a heterosexual marriage understand the world of the unmarried same sex couple?

I think the answer is often yes, but the shift in questions exposes how much the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.

I titled this blog post, “The Other 53%” as a reference to the Pacific Northwest statistic that reports that a full 53% of adults are in one of these four unmarried categories—single, separated, divorced and widowed. In other words, people like me are actually in the public majority and yet when I step into my church culture I suddenly feel like I have to accept my place in a private minority.

church weddingOf course, this is not surprising. The structure of the ministry of the church was set up at a time when 67% of adults were married (1960). These structures were established around what we consider “the normal stages of human development”—childhood, education, adulthood, vocation, marriage, children, retirement and eventually death. We have rituals to celebrate these stages and transitions—baptism, confirmation, graduations, weddings and funerals. Our rituals reinforce the normalcy of marriage and children.

All of this is well and good—at least for that group that represents the 47% of our communities who fit this mold. But our current rituals do little to help unmarried people navigate the world of dating, divorce, sexual expression and shifting relational networks.

I have nothing against married people. They are some of the nicest people I know. I just wish the church recognized the 53% of us who are not married as equals.

Maybe we should become a voting bloc!

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

Good Grief

fishThere is a story about two young fish who are swimming along when an older fish swims by, nods at them, and asks, “How’s the water, youngsters?” The two young fish swim on and then one fish finally turns to the other fish and asks, “What the hell is water?”

The point is that we are often too close to our own context to see the reality that is all around us.

From 2000 until 2007, I worked as a bereavement coordinator for a hospice outfit and taught grief theory to potential foster parents. When I returned to pastoral ministry I suddenly became aware of how much organizational grief is the water we swim in in the church. It permeates almost everything we do.

Of course, it’s not the only reality of our ecclesiastical existence. We also swim in the currents of divine yearning, intimate connection, grace and gratitude, and a deep existential trust. But when I returned to pastoral ministry after years of working with clients experiencing grief I found that organizational grief showed up in most Session meetings, planning retreats, and parking lot conversations.

On Death and DyingGrief is a normal process that a body or organization experiences in response to loss. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross first noticed and named stages of grief in her book “On Death and Dying.” The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While my experience is that grief rarely moves from one stage to another cleanly, the categories are helpful, nonetheless, as a guide for understanding how a person moves from paralyzing loss to a vital and rich life again.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) peaked in terms of membership in 1967. That means that for the last 54 years our experience of church has been within the context of ongoing loss. In other words, whether we acknowledge it or not, that is just the water that we swim in.

Cliff JumpingEventually, with regard to loss, the goal is move through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression to the glorious and life-giving stage of acceptance. But it is not easy. The temptation is always to try to return to the former glory days, whatever that might mean for you. We humans are unbelievably crafty and creative and we will go to nearly heroic lengths to avoid the fourth stage, depression, or “dark night of the soul.” I have seen dozens of churches near the point of acceptance only to retreat to “just one more attempt” to bargain their way out of loss.

Many years ago, I created an easy-to-use handout for church leaders to help them see where their churches might be on the stages of grief. Each of the quotes are typical things you might hear in a congregation as it contends with loss. This might be a good exercise for your church leadership to engage in. If you want deeper work in this area, let me know, and I will be glad to work with your leadership on seeing how grief may be keeping your congregation from stepping fully into gospel life again.

Stages of Organizational Grief in Churches


By Rev. Brian Heron



Denial  (pretending the elephant isn’t in the room)

  • “The lack of young families is not surprising.  People tend to come back to church in their retirement years as they become more reflective about life.”
  • “The Church goes through these cycles and always seems to bounce back.”
  • “I don’t believe the statistics.  I know some churches that are growing.”

Anger (blaming someone for letting the elephant into the room)

  • “Young people just aren’t very responsible these days.”
  • “We haven’t had very good pastors for quite some time.”
  • “When did God take a back seat to soccer games and Sunday papers?”
  • “I can’t believe the Presbytery hasn’t given us more resources.”

Bargaining (negotiating to get the elephant out of the room)

  • “If we can get a young, good-looking pastor with a family we’ll start growing again.”
  • “If we started doing more praise music like the mega-churches we would attract more people.”
  • “If the pastor just visited more and preached better we would see pledges go up.”

Depression (realizing that the elephant is not going to move)

  • “Things aren’t looking very good.  We don’t know what to do.”
  • “If things keep going like this we won’t be here in five years.”
  • “I don’t know where the church went.”

Acceptance (setting a place at the table for the elephant)

  •  “We are going to remain faithful for as long as we are here.”
  • “We may not survive, but we can at least leave a legacy in our community and in the presbytery.”
  • “We need to rethink and re-imagine church.”
  • “We need to pass the baton of our Christian mission to a new community of people.”

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


Tag. You’re it.

It started sometime in January of this year.

My hands wouldn’t allow me to lift my razor to my neck and chin. I don’t mean that I suddenly came down with a debilitating disability or that my shirt was too tight to raise my arms. I mean some unconscious psychological force was impairing me from following through on the morning ritual of shaving.

Presbyterian Brian
Pre-Pandemic Presbyterian Brian

For most of my adulthood I shaved and kept my beard well-trimmed because I liked the look. I thought it looked sharp. Women told me I was handsome. It looked professional and yet softened my face from the harsher clean-cut look that over-emphasized my large nose.

But in recent years I noticed a pattern emerging. I never shaved on Saturdays unless I had a memorial to officiate, a fundraising dinner to support or a new hot date to impress. Increasingly, I noticed that I was letting my stubble grow for one or two days even during the week before deciding, “I really need to clean up.”

Then 2020 happened.

Something changed. Something shifted.

Bearded Brian
Post-Pandemic Presbyterian Brian

The whole exposure of this past year to the unconscious biases and racism of our culture began working on me. And it showed up in the morning in front of a steamy bathroom mirror. If twenty years ago I was shaving because I liked the look, in recent years, I realized that I was shaving to look “presentable.”

But presentable to who? My family doesn’t care. In fact, my kids tease me about when I am going to shake it up a little and “drop that same old conservative look,” in their words. The community where I just bought a house doesn’t care. In fact, many of the men here have long, scruffy, and bushy beards. There is a ruggedness to them that comes from hours of daily physical labor out in the rain and sun.

I realized that who I was trying to be presentable for was associated with my profession—“I can’t show up in the pulpit without having shaved!” “I can’t speak in front of City Council looking scruffy and embarrassing my church or presbytery!” “I can’t visit a patient at the hospital and send the message that they weren’t important enough to clean up and dress up.”

Before my mind knew what was happening to me my hands were already querying me, “Who are you trying to impress and look presentable for?” 2020 changed me.

RazorOver the months, I have begun to wonder if this is how unconscious biases and racism find their way into our individual and collective psyches. It seems like such an innocent thing—whether to shave or not shave. What’s the big deal? But how much have I and all of us been conditioned to believe that to look clean cut and presentable is the holy and right thing to do? “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” may not be too much of an exaggeration.

But my questions went further. How much of my life over the years has been to reinforce a white, professional, upper middle class lifestyle? How much have I compromised on my own unique personality in order to look the part and play a role? How much have I contributed to the unconscious and subtle boundaries that tell us all who is in and who is out?

tattooed womanThe act of shaving increasingly carried a weight to it this year that I hadn’t expected. It suddenly occurred to me that if I wasn’t willing to take the risk to look a little different then how the hell was I going to accept the tattooed Millenial, the man transitioning to a woman, the West African immigrant, the developmentally less-abled, the recently released rough-looking prisoner, the tattered homeless person, the outspoken feminist, the burka-wearing Muslim, the Spanish-speaking home health aide, the construction worker with colorful language, the cowboy boot-wearing, tobacco chewing rancher, the second-hand store clad single mother, the skeptical agnostic, the always angry, locally-known SOB, the long-haired musician, the proselytizing evangelical, the mothball-smelling grandmother, the PTSD-impaired Vietnam veteran, the food stamp-dependent father, the feather-wearing, earring-dangling free spirit, and the BLM t-shirt-wearing protester.

The events of this past year are changing and transforming me—both inside and out.

I feel different. I look different.

How have they been changing and transforming you?

Tag. You’re it.

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


24 hours. Three different blog posts attempts. Aargh!

Earth DayTwo weeks ago, I decided that I would highlight Earth Day since this post lands on Earth Day itself, April 22. I was just about ready to sit down and type out that post after gathering some data when a NYT article was forwarded to me through Facebook. Within hours numerous other people were saying, “Did you see the NYT article on languishing.”

I shifted.

My fingers got itchy and I had nearly put the finishing touches on the post when the verdict for the Derek Chauvin trial was announced. Suddenly, that became the most important topic for the week. How could a religious leader in a presbytery that is intentionally wrestling with white structural racism not have something to say about this?

LanguishingAll seemed important. Earth Day is one observance that provides a natural connecting point between a faith tradition that believes in a Creator God and a Pacific Northwest culture deeply committed to environmentalism. But, as important as that was, the NYT article on “languishing” spoke most directly to how so many of us are feeling in this time when hope just seems to be teasing us. That is, until the verdict came out and suddenly my attention was yanked another direction.

That is what I want to speak to—this confusing aimlessness and uncertainty about what should get our attention in this in-between time.

At the root of that for me seems to be this need to find some traction somewhere. I recently got approved for a study leave for later this fall (pandemic willing) to walk the Camino in Spain. While it is in my area of study (pilgrimages and mysticism) the real reason I began planning it was just to have something to work toward and to give some structure to my days. I had to find hope somewhere!

guitar playerAlmost every day I go through this same exercise of setting goals for the week and for the month only to find that carrying them out is like walking through emotional mud. So, I end up doing what seems most necessary for the day. I make sure to practice my yoga, meditate, write in my prayer journal, attend to the most urgent presbytery matters, walk, shop, cook, play guitar and connect with family and friends. With little variation that is pretty much how every day looks.

I have today handled. It’s the future I can’t seem to figure out.

The NYT times article was titled, “There’s a Name for this Blah You are Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” The author, Adam Grant, writes, ““Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

When I read it, it named not only what I was feeling but what I was hearing from so many others around me. A few weeks ago, I was hearing hope as vaccines were rolling out and people were using projected dates as a way to mark the end of this pandemic nightmare.

Then something shifted.

pandemic fatigueThe dates didn’t seem to hold as much promise as we had originally thought. There are concerns that we are in a race against time as variants potentially outpace our vaccination schedule. Pandemic fatigue is resulting in more people disregarding safety precautions. The July 4th goal for family get-togethers set by the Biden administration doesn’t have the same hopeful ring to it that it did a few weeks ago.

Whatever it is, many of us are feeling this aimlessness, this inability to get traction, this period of stagnation and languishing. The NYT times article said that the first step in dealing with the feeling of languishing is simply naming it.

Naming it takes some of the power it has to turn into depression. Naming it helps us feel a little less alone as others come out of hiding as well. Naming it quiets that voice that keeps asking, “What’s wrong with me?” Naming it helps us frame it as a temporary feeling due to circumstance rather than a failure of character. Naming it is the first step toward liberating us from it.

truthJesus famously said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” We often immediately assume that Jesus is referring to truths about himself or about God or about the right way to live. But I also think the truth can apply to coming to terms with our emotional reality.

The truth can mean looking into the mirror and being honest about what we see. Sometimes we don’t like what we see. Sometimes we shame ourselves into believing that we should be different and feel different. But shame is not liberating. It can be motivating, but it does not liberate.

Are you languishing too? Are you feeling aimless and stagnant in your pandemic prison? It’s okay. Admit it. You are not alone.

Truth-telling is liberating.. Do it for yourself. Do it for others.

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

A Theology of Presence

Somewhere toward the end of my college experience, I caught the theology bug. Believe me, it is worse than the flu bug. Lasts much longer!

MysteryI was already majoring in religion at the Presbyterian-affiliated college, The College of Idaho. As I neared upper class courses, the subject matter shifted from Biblical history to Reformed theology. I loved the shift. The study of God is a little different than the study of bugs as biology focuses on stuff you can touch and see and smell. Theology focuses on a mystery that continually slips through ones fingers.

After college I still couldn’t stay away from theology. Despite never intending to be a pastor I found myself enrolled in seminary with a plan to become a YMCA director. I know, it doesn’t make much sense, but it felt right to me at the time and studying theology was so much fun. “Why not spend tens of thousands of dollars and three years of my life having fun!” was my sentiment.

rainbow handsI have to be honest—my love and study of theology has never gone away. It only morphed into something more nuanced, more personal, and more universal over time. I have provided spiritual leadership in a number of settings over the last thirty years. Each of those experiences has shaped my understandings of God or the Sacred or that Mystery to which I have referred. Today, if someone were to ask about my theology I would say that I now practice of theology of presence.

The interesting thing about this theology of presence is that it is very consistent person to person and group to group, but its form and language shifts with each group I meet. This week a Presbyterian News Service article came out in response to the Gallup poll that revealed that religious membership dipped below 50% in the U.S. this past year. The article featured my thoughts on what it is like to be a church leader in “one of the least religious areas in the country.”

chaplainIn that article I talked about practicing ministry a little like a chaplain who moves from hospital room to hospital room. Chaplains shift their language and approach to meet the needs of the particular person in the bed before them. And they often only have twenty seconds and thirty feet in which to make that shift. A chaplain is often faced with talking to a devout Catholic in one room and then having to immediately shift to scientific rationalist in the next room. And in each room the chaplain must find the right words to provide a healing presence.

If my thirty-year ministry has been a little like moving from hospital room to hospital room meeting with all kinds of people with different beliefs, values and life experiences this what those individual rooms looked like:

  • In the 90’s I worked with an emerging church model called “The Questers.”—There I learned to share Biblical themes through movies, children’s books, poetry, and music.
  • In 1999, I helped found a Unitarian Universalist Church—There I learned to use the language of the stages of spiritual and faith development that were shared by various religions.
  • In 2006, I started working with a Presbyterian church nearing closing—There I interpreted the Biblical scriptures through the lens of the stages of grief as I moved the congregation to a place of graceful acceptance.
  • In 2007, I started a Movies and Meaning group—With a group made up of JuBu’s (Jewish Buddhists), spiritual but not religious, agnostics, a woman with a dance spirituality, a spiritual visual artist, and mystical Catholics I discovered that my place in this group was as an “agnostic Christian mystic.”
  • In 2015, I starting working with a Presbyterian church that had a conservative/progressive split—There I found myself using the language of the mystics (without using the word itself much) as a way to heal the divide between the two. The mystics provided the common language of experience that both those who were reading Mary Oliver poems and those who had a personal relationship with Jesus could relate to.

chameleonIt may appear to some that I am like a chameleon switching my spiritual identity to whatever group I happen to be with at the time. But that just isn’t true. What I am consistent about is to make sure that I show up all the time with a “theology of presence” and then use whatever tools and experience I have to be the Christ presence in that particular setting.

Why do I share this? Because I believe most of our churches are in contexts where the faith that they espouse on Sunday looks and sounds very different from the values, language, beliefs and experiences of those peeking in through our stained glass windows.

I often have churches ask me, “Pastor, how can we share our faith with the people in our community?”

My answer is simple:

Just learn to show up and be authentically and fully present.

God will take care of the rest.

See, isn’t theology fun!

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

The Poet Preacher

In 1054 C.E. (Common Era) the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church split in what is often called The Great Schism. There were many reasons for this including issues over theology and ecclesiastical power and organization. One of the theological issues that was at the core of the schism was over the issue of how they validated the theological claims of the Church. The West tended to value scholasticism and rational philosophical discourse as the basis for theological claims. The East valued experience through ascetic spiritual disciplines in a concept called theoria.

history of XtntyIn the third episode of the PBS special on The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Oxford scholar, Diarmaid MacCulloch, framed it this way: In the West religious leaders tend to be theologians and philosophers. In the East religious leaders are seen more as poets and artists.

I have been wondering aloud in recent years if what is taking place in our society and in our religious institutions is the awkward attempt to heal this nearly 1,000-year split and bring the two great traditions back together again.

Heart and mind. Art and science. East and West.

I know that my own heart and soul is yearning for this. In seminary, I lapped up every theological course that I could. Every one of my electives was dedicated to the study of some angle of theology. But about fifteen years ago I noticed a shift in my preaching and in how I framed my statement of faith. I desired less to get a message across during my sermons and desired more that people had an experience. I found myself wanting to appeal more to people’s hearts than to their minds.

dancer in smokeMy statements of faith also shifted. Rather than a long treatise precisely defining my beliefs about God, Jesus and the Church I shifted toward the imprecise language of imagery and adjectives. My last two statements of faith (2005 and 2015) were written in the form of poetry where I could leave plenty of room for Mystery and Sacred Presence. I didn’t want to pin God down!

I am noticing this among our pastors as well. Over thirty years ago, we preachers used poetry in the pulpit, but I sense a shift in purpose. Those of us from that generation would often share a poem as a way of making a deeper point. Our sermons had a message and a well-placed poem often made our point for us. But, now I am noticing that poetry is often the point itself. The poems aren’t being used to point to something else, but to provide the language for an experience in itself.

Dancing WomanIt reminds me of a story that Joseph Campbell tells in his interview with Bill Moyers for the wildly popular series, The Power of Myth. He tells of visiting a Shinto priest in Japan. Campbell asks the priest, “What is the meaning of your religion?” The priest answers, “Meaning? We have no meaning. We just dance.”

What is the meaning of a rose? A snow-capped mountain? The aroma of baked bread? A first kiss?

That is the difference between the East and West. In the West we attempt to know God through rational philosophical and theological thought. In the East they attempt to know God through experience.

Thesssaloniki 033
A shrine in Greece

I experienced this difference when I rode my bike through Greece in 2014. I stepped foot in many Greek Orthodox churches and roadside shrines. I was overwhelmed by the sensual experience of icons, crosses, burning candles and incense, and bold evocative colors. I can’t tell you what it all meant, but I can tell you that I felt surrounded by God and humbled by a Presence that defied words.

I am thankful that we have good theologians among us. I am also thankful that we have poet preachers.

Maybe the Great Schism is slowly coming to an end.

We can hope.

We can do our part.

A Haiku:

Artists, poets ask

Thinkers and theologians

Can I have this dance?

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

“I Surrender”

What takes most of us a lifetime to learn Jesus seemed to embody in one night.

prayer prostrateThat night, that we call Maundy Thursday, commemorates two essential events in Jesus’ final days on earth—the Last Supper with his disciples and his retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane. It is the latter, those sobering moments that Jesus spent in prayer that I want to turn my attention to today.

I am struck by the brevity and simplicity of Jesus’ prayer and yet the lifetime that it takes most of us to get there. He simply prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22: 42)

For those who spend Sundays worshiping in a pew the words are very familiar. In the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer worshipers repeat those familiar words, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

AgonyBut as often as we say those words, I wonder if the profound impact of them ever sinks fully into our souls. There are so few words in the description of Jesus’ retreat to the Garden of Gethsemane, but there are just enough clues to know that Jesus must have experienced a visceral and profound sense of fear and trepidation. Three of the gospels briefly mention the event and two of them say that Jesus “threw himself on the ground and prayed.” Emphasis on “threw.”

Have you ever thrown yourself on the ground? These prayers are not the safe prayers that get recited before bedtime or the Sunday prayers of the worshiping faithful. These are the prayers that get poured out when you get the news of a loved one suddenly being ripped from your life. These are the prayers that cry out from the depths of your soul when a lifelong dream is suddenly shattered. These are the prayers that leave us in a heap of tears when we aren’t sure we can face another day.

These are the prayers of absolute and terrifying surrender.

Jesus throws himself on the ground in a moment that probably contained grief, terror and a heart pleading for mercy. And then, then when the terror had subsided he prayed the words of absolute surrender, “Yet, not my will but yours be done.”

white flagI have been thinking a lot about surrender these days. In fact, every day it seems like I spend part of the day trying to hold onto a life I once I knew and the rest of the day surrendering to a future that I have little control over or say about. Half the day I insist on my own will and the other half I give myself over to God’s will, to the unfolding drama of Life, and to spiritual forces much stronger than me.

I remember during the years of working in hospice how important the act of surrender was. Many people associate hospice with death, but I don’t think that is quite right. My experience of hospice was that the transformative moment wasn’t the moment of death, it was the moment of acceptance and surrender. It was the moment the potential patient threw herself on the ground with visceral terror and turned her face skyward and cried, “I am not going to fight this anymore. I surrender to God, I surrender to Life, I surrender to death.”

Family albumThat was the Big moment. Because after the moment of surrender the forces of Life took over. Families worked through age-old disagreements. Fathers and sons reconciled. Mothers and daughters clung tightly to each other. Stories were shared. Laughter replaced anxiety and fear. Repressed memories suddenly found their way to the surface. Albums of weddings, graduations, and vacations became the center of conversations.

The energy of the family shifted from fighting off death to celebrating life and love.

There are two events of Maundy Thursday. The second event in the Garden of Gethsemane is that gut wrenching moment when Jesus surrendered all of his personal dreams, deepest desires, and human wants to the greater forces of Life and the will of God.

The best modern illustration of this is the late Leonard Cohen’s song, “If It Be Your Will” sung by Antony. Listen to it and imagine Jesus pleading and praying at the Garden of Gethsemane. It does not take much imagination to think that Cohen’s words might have been very close to Jesus’ words.

Click here for the YouTube link.

Some will say this pandemic is about death. But it is not death that transforms us. It is the act of surrender.

Maundy Thursday blessings to you…

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