When “Selfishness” Serves

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

ThurmanI love this quote by Howard Thurman, the late African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. I wished that I could say that my love for it is because it mirrors my life so well. But the truth is, I love this quote because it gives me permission to focus less on other’s needs and more on what I truly enjoy and what brings me delight and deep satisfaction.

I know that it almost sounds selfish. What do mean you intend to think about Number One first and only secondarily to the needs of others? But Thurman doesn’t allow himself to get caught in a false dialectic. Rather he integrates the two reminding us that the world doesn’t need people who give up life for the sake of others, but that the world needs people who are alive, who are passionate, and who shine like a light on a hill.

It reminds me of the opening prologue to the Gospel of John. After introducing us to the concept of the logos, the Word, and Jesus’ embodiment of it the author informs us that “what has come into being through Him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

mother and childWe know that Jesus met people in many different ways—healing, forgiving, saving, redeeming, exorcising, inspiring, challenging, etc. But John reminds us that essentially Jesus came to us as one who was fully alive. Focusing on what brings us alive does not mean that we are selfish. It just means that we first make contact with the divine image within our own selves and then act in the world. “What the world needs is people who have come alive,” writes Thurman.

I have been taking a class on World Religions the last few weeks using Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One. This week the subject matter was Daoism. I already knew that I was going to be reflecting on Thurman’s quote for my blog. As I read the chapter I was struck by how closely Daoism reflects both Thurman’s quote and the prologue to the Gospel of John. A basic assumption of Daoism is that one should spend time nurturing what one would most naturally do. The idea of Daoism is to come into harmony with life by focusing on the self and one’s deepest expression of life. Said in another way, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive…”

not caringI think our fear is that if we focus on ourselves we will automatically, by definition, forget about the needs of others. But I think this is based on a low view of human nature rather than a high view. In a low view we assume that we are, by nature, sinful creatures and, given to our own devices, would prefer to act selfishly forgetting the needs of others. In a high view, we assume that we are, by nature, good creatures and that, if we get in touch with our deepest self, we will discover in the very act of being self-ish we end up meeting the needs of others.

I have met some remarkable people in my life whom I would describe as being truly alive. To a person, in every one of them, one could not tell the difference between meeting their own selfish needs and meeting the needs of others. The two went hand in hand. The more they concentrated on what made them come alive the more they ended up serving humanity.

Snapshots from my life:

  • The chorale conductor whose deepest passion was music and who brought delight to a whole community;
  • The professor whose calling was to teach and mentor and who made the difference in hundreds of young lives;
  • The singer who used her gifts at the bedside of hospice patients as they transitioned from this life to the next;
  • The athlete who dedicated his life to the game on the court and who inspired a whole new generation of young people to dream;
  • The retired person who missed the daily contact of work and who took up delivering Meals on Wheels;
  • The writer who delighted in words and discovered those same words brought life to others.

It’s a strange irony. I can tell you that every one of these people acted out of their own self-interest. And every one of them ended up meeting the needs of others in deep and profound ways.

I think the message is, “Don’t worry so much about what others need. Concentrate on what makes you come alive. Let God do the rest.”

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

The Married Minority

If you are married, do you feel like you are in the minority? I am guessing not.

weddingWhen I grew up I felt like everybody was supposed to get married. It was as if there was a pre-ordained plan to life: high school, college and higher education, marriage, and then children. Eventually retirement and traveling was supposed to be in the picture, but that was still a mirage somewhere way off into the future.

But as far as I was concerned everybody got married or wanted to get married. If you were single it was because the gods hadn’t smiled on you yet. No one chose singleness in my mind.

Which is why the following statistic may be a surprise to you. I know it was for me when I first started leading mission studies with congregations and introducing them to the demographics of their communities. Are you aware that married people are actually in the minority in Oregon? It is true. 49.4% of Oregonian adults are married and 50.6% are unmarried.

The unmarried majority are actually broken down into four subgroups:

  • Single and never married: 31%
  • Divorced: 12%
  • Separated: 2%
  • Widowed: 6%

I want to make sure that you hear this language—the UNMARRIED MAJORITY! I make a point of this because my experience has been that many of us still assume that marriage is the norm and the ideal. Increasingly it is neither the norm nor the ideal.

coupleUntil 2011 our Book of Order held the standard that ordained persons had to be either in a heterosexual marriages or “celibate in singleness.” While the language was restricted to ordained persons it still sent a clear message to the UNMARRIED MAJORITY of our region—“If you are not married we expect you to either be celibate or to keep your romantic relationships to yourself.” It was as if we were saying to our congregations, “Talk about what you and your married spouse did this last weekend all you want, but keep your unmarried relationships and liaisons to yourself. We have to set an example for the children!”

Unfortunately, the example we have often set has communicated to our members that if they do not fit the “norm” they probably don’t fit at all. The irony, of course, is that the unmarried are now more the norm than the married.

So, here are some questions that may help you discern how receptive your congregation is to the UNMARRIED MAJORITY of our communities:

  • Would it be okay for a single person to show up with different dates over a long stretch of successive Sundays? Would they be welcomed or avoided?
  • At fellowship hour, how comfortable would you be if a single/divorced/widowed person shared that they were going to the coast to a cabin with their romantic partner during the same conversation that you were talking about the plans you and your spouse had?
  • The language “celibate in singleness” has been dropped from our Book of Order. Do you have updated education for people in relationships that guides them to a Christian sexual ethic that respects the changing reality of relationships and sexual intimacy in our time?
  • What programs and ministries have you established to be attractive to the 69% of young adults aged 20-34 who aren’t married?

sweet intimacyI will lay my cards on the table. I write this because I think there is still a subtle assumption that we are trying to figure out how to invite people into our culture of marriage and family. I think we may have it reversed. More and more I have come to believe that we need to adapt our Christian ethics to reflect the changing patterns of relationships and sexual intimacy in our time. Saying nothing is sort of like endorsing an “anything goes” mentality. Saying something moves us toward relevance.

You don’t have to go looking too far to find examples of that UNMARRIED MAJORITY. I belong to that group.

Get to know me and you get to know your community.

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

In Life and in Death…

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3: 19

Ash Wednesday was always one of the more powerful services of the year for me as a church pastor. As I made the mark of the cross on each person’s forehead, I said those words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It was always an intimate moment of connection.

ash wednesdayThe experience was different for each person. Looking into the eyes of the 88-year old widowed parishioner the words felt powerful as if I was wrapping my arms around her in this tender and sacred season of life. While marking the forehead of the 15-year old teenager, I smiled a soft smile knowing that this was more of a teaching moment than a reflection of an existential experience.

These words are important, especially in our culture where we are more tempted to recite every year, “You are only as old as you feel,” “Age is only a state of mind,” and where products to keep us looking young are a multi-billion dollar industry.

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Damn, those are sobering words!

They are also liberating words.

Singer/songwriter, Dan Fogelberg wrote, “Death is there is to keep us honest; and constantly remind us we are free.” Yes, death frees us to live!

Henri Frederic Amiel writes what has become a favorite church benediction, “Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” In other words, live and love now.

old and youngI write all this as an introduction to share the prayer that I wrote earlier this month. In preparation for the 224th General Assembly in Baltimore in June, 180 church leaders across the denomination were asked to submit prayers. I wanted to write a prayer that reminded us that it was okay to trust God in both life and in death. I wanted to write this prayer to remind us that the life that Ash Wednesday points us to in death is the same life that Easter points us to in resurrection. I wrote this prayer to remind us of our opening sentence in the Brief Statement of Faith: “In life and in death we belong to God.” Here is my prayer.

A Prayer for the 224th General Assembly

The Mystics’ Version

In life and in death we belong to you, O God.

Beginnings and endings

Baptism and burial

First breath and last breath

Hello and goodbye

 

We belong to you, O God, in your sacred seasons.

Sunrise invitations and sunset completions

Spring and fall, summer and winter

Life blossoming and life decaying

High hopes and deep despair

 

We belong to you, O God, in your ever-evolving Creation.

Fusion and fissure

Building up and tearing down

Upsizing and downsizing

Holding on and letting go

 

We belong to you, O God—a dance between two lovers.

The delight of laughter, the pain of tears

Faithful trust and healthy suspicion

Divine connection and sacred separation

Intimate communion and soulful solitude

 

We belong to you, O Christ, God incarnate.

Forming and reforming

Dying and rising…

Dying and rising…

Dying and rising…again and still.

 

In life and in death we belong to you, O God.

So be it.

So it is.

Amen.

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

And the Oscar goes to…

“No matter where we are from, we all ask ourselves the same questions.”

This was the statement that stunning actress, Penelope Cruz, made as she announced the winner of the Best International Film at the Academy Awards this past Sunday, reinforcing that no matter where a film originates it still speaks to our basic human condition—even if we have to read the subtitles!

This blog comes under the category of “If you want to better connect with the spiritual but not religious in your community read this blog.” The rest of you can take a week off and hope I have something more relevant next week.

E.T.I first became interested in the power of movies to convey spiritual themes or a religious narrative in college. My wife (ex now) and I had just seen the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestial for the second time. Later that day we were having a conversation with one of our favorite professors who happened to be Jewish. He blurted out, “They could have just as well titled it J.C. as E.T.” I must have looked stunned as I could not imagine what likeness a waddling rubbery alien had to the handsome, long-haired, sandal-wearing Jesus of my imagination.

JesusOur dear professor then methodically lined up Spielberg’s story with the gospel story revealing an almost identical plot line from a “divine-like” figure appearing from the heavens to disciples (children) who seemed to sympathize with him to Pharisees and pharaohs who were threatened by him and finally to a penultimate scene of death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit (E.T. touching Elliot’s forehead saying, “I’ll be right here,”) before a final ascension by spacecraft.

Years later I preached an 8-week sermon series titled “Reel Religion” where I highlighted eight different films that mirrored Biblical parables or revealed aspects of our Reformed theology. In recent years I have organized four different “Movies and Meaning” meetups drawing the interest of as many as 200 people in two of those four groups (Please note: meetups are not like church. 200 people on an “alert list” means 10-15 people generally show up for an event).

This is what I learned from those experiences. As Penelope Cruz stated so well, “No matter where we are from, we all ask ourselves the same questions.” Where we may differ is in the answers that we come to or give. But what draws us together are the questions themselves.

  • “What does it mean to be human?”
  • “What is our purpose in life?”
  • “How ought we to treat each other and our planet?”
  • “What is the meaning of our lives (if there even is a meaning)?
  • “What is the essence of the world that we see and experience?”

Many movies (the good ones!) wrestle with these basic human questions.

preacherThe church has a perception problem. Whether you are reinforcing this perception or not, it is there. When we preach on Sunday the perception is that we are in the business of giving answers to life’s most essential questions. What I learned in my “Movies and Meaning” groups was that people are yearning for safe places to wrestle with the questions, but are suspicious of people and places where the wrestling is already done and the answers are already worked out. I found that I couldn’t preach to these people, but they welcomed my leadership when I wrestled with the questions with them following a movie.

If you have a person or two in your congregation who just loves, loves, loves movies they might be the right person to facilitate a movie group in your community. I discovered that movies were a good way to connect people of faith with the spiritual but not religious because both groups openly wrestle with the questions. I would be glad to share my experience of starting and facilitating these groups over the last twelve years.

In addition, here are some other resources and links you might find helpful in starting a group in your church or community:

Living the questions faithfully with you…

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

Bringing Affordable Housing Home

Affordable housing isn’t someone else’s burden.

Cottage village
Tiny houses going up in Cottage Village–a project in partnership with First, Cottage Grove

This past week I attended the Affordable Housing Fair in North Portland sponsored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) with the City of Portland. The event highlighted three faith community sites in Portland chosen by BPS to receive grants and consulting services in order to forward affordable housing development on those sites. One of the things that emerged from this event was a clear message given to the faith community: If churches can partner with each other to create forty units of affordable housing between them, it suddenly becomes cost effective.

 

Lakeside bunks
Bunks in Lakeside Community Church Emergency Warming Shelter

I was pleased that four of our Portland churches attended the fair, asked questions and explored the possibility of making affordable housing a church mission. Affordable housing and homelessness is clearly becoming the number one community concern among our churches and our communities. As I reported after traveling to the vast majority of our churches in my first year, affordable housing is a presbytery-wide concern. It is affecting urban areas, rural areas, coastal regions, and the suburbs. No area of Oregon is untouched by this issue.

 

But lest you think housing issues only affect those “less fortunate” I want to bring this home for you.

We are quickly facing a dilemma where more and more of our ordained clergy either face housing issues themselves or are dependent on the income of a spouse in order to live in the community in which they serve. Increasingly, single, divorced and widowed clergy are finding themselves flirting with the edges of the affordable housing crisis.

Florence trailers
Transitional Housing on the property of Church of the Siuslaw, Florence

I think it is important for you to hear how the affordable housing crisis has personally touched me. In 2006 I was divorced.  For a period after the divorce I was a single father raising a teenage daughter. I was also serving in a church where I was being paid the full time minimum salary set by the presbytery. In Portland, that salary qualified me for low-income housing and from 2008-2012 I was fortunate to be able to live in a federally subsidized apartment complex while I served in pastoral ministry.

 

After 2012, my ministry led me to the more tenuous, feast-and-famine, interim work. During that five-year period I was on food stamps for a short period, house sat for a year in order to build my savings and bought a camper so that I would always have a back-up plan during periods of unemployment.

I want to be clear that this is not a complaint. It is just my reality.

St. Luke's Huts
Women’s Transitional Housing Huts on the property of St. Luke’s Episcopal in Waldport

Speaking of realities. Less than half of our congregations now have full time installed pastors. That means that over half of our churches either have no pastor, have temporary pastors or have pastors who are employed less than full time. We keep thinking that a full time installed pastor is the norm. The fact is, it is no longer the norm. It is increasingly becoming more of a luxury.

 

I am convinced that addressing the affordable housing crisis is going to be the mission that defines our presbytery for years to come. We have property. We have resources. We have a Matthew 25 obligation to minister to “the least of these.” We even have ministers who are impacted by the affordable housing crisis.

If your church is looking for a way to respond to the affordable housing crisis please contact me. The momentum is growing in our presbytery and I can help you connect with others who have taken the plunge. I am ready to help us organize around this important issue.

Thank you for tackling the affordable housing crisis.

Affordable housing is not someone else’s burden.

It’s BEEN my burden.

It IS our burden.

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

Becoming a “Junior Partner”

One of the things that I have reinforced when working with churches is the need to think about mission as being “with” rather than “for.” Grammatically, it is the simplest of changes—moving from one preposition to another. In terms of church of ministry, however, it is a monumental shift.

privilegeThe difference is this. When we are doing ministry “for” the community we assume a place of privilege (i.e. the privileged serving the underprivileged). We assume that we are the helpers reaching out to those who need help. When we do ministry “with” the community we assume that those we are helping have as much to offer us as we do them. It is shared need and shared privilege.

Some of our most successful ministries in this presbytery are ministries that done in partnership with other community agencies, neighborhood associations, government entities, and social service non-profits. I see it in our missions to address affordable housing, hunger issues, and world poverty.

But I want to take this simple prepositional shift a little further.

I spent the last two days in a two-day retreat with Common Table, the Oregon-wide initiative that our presbytery is involved with. Common Table is committed to presenting a unified voice among our broadly diverse religious community. Around our table are voices from mainline and evangelical Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islam, Sikh, Buddhist and Native American traditions.

women rightsThis the third intensive retreat I have participated in. I am appreciating how deeply we have been able to engage with each other acknowledging our common humanity even as we wrestle with troubling differences. (Remember, while we in the PCUSA are forging our way into deeper inclusiveness other traditions don’t recognize women leaders or same sex relationships.) This does take work–lots of love, lots of honesty, and lots of trust.

But one thing that did emerge from this most recent gathering was an acknowledgement that, no matter what our religious tradition, all of us were contending with the increasing irrelevance of our religious voices in our communities and culture. As we digested this reality one of our wiser members, representing the Native American voice, told us that he felt that all of us would have to learn, in working with the culture around us, to become “Junior Partners.”

The description immediately resonated with me. Randy was describing how we not only need to move from doing ministry “for” the community to doing ministry “with” the community, but that we also needed to learn how to take a back seat and play the support role in many cases. “Yes,” he said, “we do need to learn to partner with our community and we need to limit our roles to that of Junior Partners.”

tattoo manThis immediately resonated with me because no longer can we simply assume that we in the dominant culture have something that those in minority communities want. That is the underlying assumption of ministry “for” people. “We have privilege and we are going to share some of that privilege with you,” is how we have thought.

But more and more we are hearing people say, “We aren’t interested in your privilege. We don’t want what you have. We don’t think your lives and lifestyles are sustainable. We want something new.” The younger the generations the more we are seeing that the issue is not how to find ways to reach these people, but more how to support them and then get out of the way so they can create and build communities and a spiritual infrastructure on their own terms.

Ministry that is done “for” assumes a place of privilege.

Ministry that is done “with” assumes a shared privilege.

The ministry of “Junior Partners” assumes that privilege has shifted and needs to shift.

The ministry of “Junior Partners” assumes God is doing a new thing and we are only supporting actors.

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

Is This the Future?

I think I just saw our future.

Last week I was attending an eight-week class on the eight major religions of the world. The group is studying Boston University professor, Stephen Prothero’s book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.

god is not oneI missed the first week where the facilitators took time for each participant to introduce themselves and share a bit about what brought them to the class. I didn’t have to be there to discover what they shared. At this second class the subject was Prothero’s chapter on Christianity. The facilitator started the class by saying, “I am going to be interested to see how you all react to this class this week as it seemed that just about everyone here was either hurt by the Church or found Christianity wanting.” People chuckled in recognition.

As I listened to the participants I heard the usual stereotypical reasons for rejecting the Church,

  • “I don’t want to be part of something that has been the source of so much evil and violence in the world.”
  • “I appreciate the values of the Church, but I don’t see how anyone can believe in such things as virgin births and resurrections. It makes no rational sense.”
  • “I like Jesus, but I have no use for all the doctrines and creeds.”

Coming from the Christian tradition I actually felt that the class presented a very fair treatment of the subject matter. Prothero seemed to have a pretty objective and fair view of Christianity as he gave a simple overview of everything from Eastern Orthodox to Catholicism to Protestantism to LDS to Pentecostalism, among many others.

churchI really appreciated the class. There was room for presenting the subject matter and room for individual participants to respond from their own experience. It had the effect of both educating one on the broader Christian tradition and allowing people to share their own experiences with regard to the tradition. But there definitely was a feisty spirit among the group as the subject matter elicited a number of negative reactions.

Then something happened. The facilitator decided to close the class with a short quote by St. Isaac the Syrian, a Christian mystic from the 7th century. He read this:

“Be at peace with your own soul;

Then heaven and earth will be at peace with you;

Eagerly enter into the treasure house that is within you;

And so will you see the things that are in heaven.

For there is one single door to enter both…

The ladder that leads to the kingdom

is hidden within your soul.”

And the room melted. One person said, “That sounds like my spirituality.” Another person spoke up and said, “If that is what it means to be Christian I probably would still be in the Church.”

Hold onto this blog. We spend a lot of time wringing our hands over how we are going to reach an increasingly secular age. Yet this experience tells us something. It tells us that people are still yearning for spiritual nourishment. And it tells us that hidden within our own tradition is that spiritual food people are yearning for.

Studying the Christian mystics may be a stretch for many of our congregations. But the Christian mystics may be just the bridge we are looking for to connect with our “spiritual but not religious” neighbors.

It’s worth pondering. This just might be our future.

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

 

The Prophetic Fork in the Road–Pt. 2

“An excellent reflection. The real issue is: HOW?”

Human rightsThis was a comment on my last blog about speaking to the issues raised by the character and actions of President Trump. In that blog I explained that I am cautious about stepping into the political fray publicly, but that some of President Trump’s actions had finally crossed a line for me where silence seemed to carry more risks than speaking a prophetic word.

My reader’s comment pushed me to take the next natural step—to go from naming the need to speak publicly in our churches to the actual HOW. I will admit that I am often reluctant to get too specific about the “hows” of things. We have a large and diverse presbytery and what works for one congregation often doesn’t work for another congregation. That, coupled with the fact that we have gifted church leaders all through this presbytery, I tend to like to articulate the issues that are facing us and leave the creative implementation to our local congregations.

But this is one area where teasing out the HOW could be important. It is such a sensitive and potentially controversial subject that many church leaders likely want to address this issue, but don’t know HOW.

  • HOW to do it with sensitivity for the diversity of their congregations?
  • HOW to do it without jeopardizing the church’s non-profit status?
  • HOW to do it in a way that brings a congregation closer together rather than to tear them apart?

How, how, how…

Safe hereThe essential question for me is, “How does one create a safe environment to talk about things that matter?” That, at its heart, is what my last post was about. Not opposing President Trump himself, but saying, “We in the church have to be able to talk about things that matter,” and President Trump is having a deep impact on our relationships, our parenting, our communities and our nation. This stuff matters!

We often hear people say, “In our family the one thing we don’t talk about is religion and politics.” Why is that? Because religion and politics are two of the areas of our lives that are closest to our hearts. They are the areas that really matter and we don’t like to take the risk that the people closest to us might reject us for what we believe.

Of course, there is a problem with that approach. It means that our relationships are based on a version of us that is not our deepest, most authentic self. “I want to be accepted, so I won’t share my real self.” “I want to be liked, so I will only share the parts I think people will like.” You can see the fallacy of such approaches. How do we know we are really accepted if we haven’t even shared who we really are.

Silence and tapeThis is one of the reasons that I wrote that we had reached “a prophetic fork in the road.” The more controversial our political environment has become, the more we have been tempted toward neutrality and silence, and the less our church relationships are based on our most authentic real selves. What we really feel is either limited to those who think like us or is kept to ourselves only. And our congregations eventually learn to stay together through avoidance rather than honest engagement. Not a good reflection of the body of Christ.

The question for me is, “How does one create a safe environment to talk about things that matter?” In this case—the relationship between faith and politics.

So here are some actual HOWs:

  1. First, start building a reputation for yourself as “the church that cares about community issues.”
    1. Host community forums where city council members and community leaders can hear from their constituency.
    2. Invite a panel of experts on important issues like immigration, just war theory, “Medicare for all,” affordable housing, gentrification, homelessness, racism, etc.
    3. Host community forums during election cycles where the community can hear from candidates from all parties.
    4. Host a Better Angels event at your church to practice how to talk to each other across the political divide. Our own, the Rev. Cynthia O’Brien, works with them now.
  2. Reinforce that dialogue is more important than agreement.
    1. Try a few dialogue sermons in your congregation where the preacher sets the context and then facilitates the message rather than preaches the message;
    2. Schedule regular “Sermon Talk Backs” after the service where members can engage with the preacher and with each other on the content of the sermon;
  3. Do an adult study or a preaching series on scripture texts that address the relationship between faith and politics, church and state:
    1. Romans 13: 1-7
    2. Acts 5: 29
    3. 1 Peter 2: 13-17
    4. Matthew 22: 21
    5. John 19: 10-11
  4. Do a book study with one of the following three books:
    1. Dare We Speak of Hope: Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics by Allan Aubrey Boesak;
    2. Progressive Christians Speak: A Different Voice in Faith and Politics by John B. Cobb, Jr.;
    3. The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America by Jim Wallis

How do we address this prophetic fork in the road in which we find ourselves? We nurture environments where we can talk about the things that matter. And we trust that the Christ who unites us is stronger than the beliefs that differentiate us.

We live in a precarious and dangerous time. Silence is not the answer. Someone we know once said, “Speak the truth in love.”

Speaking and loving.

Now that is the Presbyterian way.

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

The Prophetic Fork in the Road

crossing lineI almost wrote this post three weeks ago. I am cautious about stepping into the political fray given the diversity of our presbytery, but that day I felt like a line had been crossed. At a Michigan rally President Trump had insinuated that the late Representative John Dingell might be looking up from hell rather than down from heaven as the impeachment hearings unfolded.

I am a pastor who has officiated at hundreds of funerals and memorial services. His comment violated just about everything I know about showing respect for the dead and for those still grieving difficult losses. The comment was not illegal, but the cruelty of it left me stunned and shocked…again.

But I did not write the post. It was the post that would have been published on Christmas Eve and I wanted to honor the sacredness of that night and, for at least 24 hours, put aside the reality show that is masquerading as national politics.

Now, however, it is time to write this post. The assassination of an Iranian military leader and government official on foreign soil and the follow up threats by our president call for a response from those of us who have a religious voice. Many say that the church should stay out of politics, but we do have a responsibility to call our elected officials to ethical and moral leadership, whether or not we agree or disagree with their policies.fork in the road

In that regard, I believe that we have reached a prophetic fork in the road. There is no room left for neutrality or trying stay in the middle. There are no risk-free choices any longer. Anything we do will have risks. Anything we choose not to do will have risks. Anything we say will have consequences and anything we choose not to say will also have consequences.

I write this because in recent years I have heard a number of church leaders tell me something to the effect, “We can’t afford to be prophetic in our church. If we lose even one or two more key members we will likely never recover.” I understand the position. Many of our churches are in a fragile position concerned about their ability to maintain a building and support personnel. “Preach what you want, just don’t offend anyone,” can, unfortunately, become the unspoken assumption.

But I believe that we have reached a point where our silence is more likely to be the death of us than speaking up and taking a stand. We do need to remember that we follow a Jesus who spoke truth to power, who became a threat to the political and religious establishment, and who risked his personal safety for the cause of life, redemption and justice.

pulpitWe need to remember that at the very center of our worship is the proclamation of the gospel. If we can’t call our own leaders to a higher standard of ethical conduct we diminish the power of the pulpit. And if we diminish the power of the pulpit the Church might as well write her own obituary.

This past weekend, President Trump threatened Iran with the destruction of 52 sites including key cultural sites. He has since backed off that—quite honestly because people like us reacted in horror at the prospect. But his natural inclination was a Taliban-like reaction that not only flexes one’s political muscles but attempts to destroy the spirit of a people. Such acts are not attempts to wrest military power, but to destroy cultures. We did it to our Native American brothers and sisters and now our president doesn’t have the moral restraint to keep from threatening the same.

Why are we at a prophetic fork in the road? Because we have reached the point where our silence about immoral, dehumanizing decisions is as destructive as direct support for those decisions. At one point we might have been able to rationalize that silence was neutrality. No longer. Silence is now complicity.

sunriseI believe we are at dangerous point. As citizens we have the power to vote. We have the power to write our senators and representatives.

But in the church we have the power of the pulpit.

We have a gospel of life.

We have a Jesus whose life shines like a light in the darkness.

John reminds us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Let us be the light. Don’t let the darkness win.

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

2020 Resolution: Travel Lighter

I am writing this just over the threshold of a new year. By the time you read this the Rose Bowl will have been played and we will know whether our beloved Ducks (sorry Beav’s, maybe next year) came out on top. This is especially fun this year as my sister and her family are in Wisconsin and so we have a friendly family rivalry going on.

gift to be simpleDespite the distraction of New Year’s Bowl games I have been noticing as I enter a new year that a single mantra keeps traveling across the neon sign of my mind: Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Of course, this is not coming in the form of a New Year’s resolution, as it is a continuation of a process that demanded my attention this fall. In the course of a few short weeks, I moved to a more affordable two-bedroom apartment, dropped out of the doctoral program that was overly complicating my life, replaced my stolen car with a smaller, more affordable and environmentally friendly car, and am lowering my expectations about how much I can cram into one lifetime. Lots of simplifying going on in my life right now.

2020At a worship service last Sunday I participated in an end-of-the-year fire ritual where we were invited to write one word that represented what we were going to leave behind from 2019. The question was asked, “What will you NOT be taking with you into 2020?” The answer appeared immediately for me. “Reaching” was what I wrote down on the little slip of paper that would end up in the common flame.

Part of being a “visionary” is my ability to see the future and act as if I am going to get there. But there is a downside to it. It can also lead me to “reach and overreach” and yearn for things that are just beyond my grasp. I know how to work for a future payoff. What I haven’t nurtured well is to enjoy the payoffs right in front of me.

I have been feeling it for months—something significant is changing in me. I still feel a deep pull toward “all things visionary,” but something tells me that vision in this time is not about reaching higher, but going deeper. 2019 was the year where I was forced to admit that I can’t just add more to my life.

The two clear messages are really mirror images of each other. If I am being led to let go of a long pattern of reach and overreach then it is no wonder that the mantra “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” keeps shouting at me from the recesses of my soul.

ContemplationI feel like this message has something to do with our life as a presbytery as well—even though I can’t quite put my finger on what it is and what implications it might have. I do remember that when I interviewed for the position I had written in the essay portion of the process that I felt that the person in this position would have to learn to embody the soul of the presbytery as much as be the executive manager of the ecclesiastical system.

I think when I wrote that in my essay I was saying something similar to what I see emerging in my life right now. Our call may be to go deeper rather than to reach higher. Our old models of ambition and hard work may need to be replaced by even older models of prayer and contemplation.

A persistent mantra has been nagging at me for a number of months: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” I think the message has something to do with clearing away the clutter of my life, attending only to that which is most important and most central to who I am and my call, and being honest about my actual capacity for taking on the world.

BuberInterestingly, I am reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou right now during my morning meditation time. The reading a couple of days ago reinforced the message I have been hearing in my “simplify mantra.” Buber often takes four or five read throughs to understand him, but despite the obfuscation of his language his message pierced me right to the heart.

In this short section, he is speaking of call and that sense that our souls demand something of us that can’t be ignored. He writes,

The deed involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated.

Simplify. Clear away anything and everything that does not serve your call. Go all in.

I share this with you because, if I am experiencing this, I have a hunch that many of you are as well. We all live and serve the same system, the presbytery of the Cascades. We all swim in the same ecclesiastical waters. My life serving the presbytery is probably not that different from your life serving your church and your community.

backpackI don’t know that the call to simplify has to be there all the time. But I do wonder, in our time, if we no longer have the luxury of reach and overreach, blind ambition and working harder and harder to get what we want. I wonder if this nagging mantra “simplify, simplify, simplify” is a reminder that we are about to take a journey and we had better pack lightly.

  • What do you plan to leave behind this year in your congregation?
  • What is no longer serving you well as you think about the journey ahead of you?
  • What weight do you need to unload so you are free enough to carry out God’s mission?

My 2020 New Year’s blessing for you is this:

Travel lightly.

Travel with God.

Hold hands and stick together.

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