In trust…

In trust…

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

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

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

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

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

coffeeshop
Coffee Culture!

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

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

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

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

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

In trust…

Brian

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

What If…?

This is a completely hypothetical question, but I think there is some merit in asking it:

  • “What if we were never to return to our church buildings?
  • “What if we were forced to practice Christian community without the benefit of a dependable, static, permanent physical space?”

I think the question is worth pondering—not because I think that is our most likely future. No, because this time gives us a real opportunity to discover which of our ministries are building-dependent and which are only person-dependent. It gives us an opportunity to discover where our physical structures are a barrier to ministry and where they are an asset.

Church steepleJust a couple of a years ago a PCUSA church in a presbytery close to us decided that they could no longer survive and maintain their massive church structure that had been built for a much larger congregation. Many churches see this as a sign that closure is imminent. Not this church. They decided that they would continue to support the mission and ministry of the church just as before, but remove the building from their budget. Pledges stayed stable, but the expenses were dramatically reduced. Reports soon starting coming in that this congregation found a new life as the thousands of dollars that had been dedicated to the building were now being dedicated to local mission.

Homeless manA few years ago, I was in an ecumenical meeting where we were talking about trends in membership and a participant said, “It used to be the churches committed 10% of their budget to mission and 90% to operating costs. I hear the younger generation wants to see those figures reversed—10% to operating costs and 90% to mission.” The comment may have been exaggerated for effect, but it is a trend that I see. Many people cannot justify pledging money to building maintenance when people are literally going hungry on the streets.

I am not advocating getting rid of our church buildings. Far from it. Our buildings allow us to provide for vital ministries such as food pantries, glorious music and worship, AA meetings, community meetings, church fellowship, and even a symbolic reminder to the community of that which is holy and sacred.

Zoom screenBut this moment does provide an opportunity. The fact is that some of our churches will have to wrestle with the possibility that their building has become more of a burden than a blessing. Some of our churches will discover that aspects of their ministry are actually better done by Zoom than by requiring everyone to drive through rush hour traffic for a meeting. Some of our churches will move parts of their ministry off site while inviting other ministries to share in building use.

What if we were never able to return to our buildings? You may not have to plan on it, but it would be a great hypothetical question to help you discover how critical your building is to your ministry.

Explore this simple question at your church. “Where is our building a blessing and where it is a burden?”

Your answers may surprise you.

They may scare you.

They may delight you.

They will certainly change you.

Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.

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

The Gig’s Up…or just starting!

Dear Friends,

This blog post will be more personal than usual. Last Wednesday, I wrote my most recent blog post The Ministry Gig Economy. I was inspired by one single comment made by the Rev. Marie Mainard-O’Connell as she spoke to the General Assembly while running as a co-moderator candidate for the 224th GA meeting. She and her running mate did not get elected but her words immediately resonated with me. She stated that a pressing issue for the PCUSA is the need for resources and infrastructure for our part-time ministers who represent an emerging “Gig Economy.” After reviewing our own presbytery statistics I discovered that a full 47% of our congregations have either part-time pastors or no pastor at all.

My blog post was published Wednesday night and by Thursday morning a few responses and comments began arriving in my inbox thanking me for highlighting this.

Then something happened.

shiftA major emotional shift took hold of me. It was as if someone had lifted a veil from my eyes and let me see the meaning behind my chaotic life and ministry. Rather than feeling shame for the rather unconventional path that I have taken I finally had a label for it. Rather than seeing my professional life as running just ahead of failure I realized that my ministry experience has uniquely set me up to support, guide and lead the Church into the future.

My blog post on the “Ministry Gig Economy” was meant to help you see the new world in which we now live. What suddenly grabbed me was the realization that the struggle I have personally experienced in ministry was due to the fact that I have been living in a ministry gig economy for the better part of my thirty years in ministry. I have always been a gig pastor; I just didn’t have a name for it.

Gothic cathedralMy election as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission is really just my most recent gig. Some might see it as the culmination of a career of ever-increasing responsibility. But my path here has been unconventional and, at times, chaotic. I did not get here by climbing a more typical ladder to success. Rather I got here from my experience at being a “gig pastor” following my call wherever it took me and living with the financial insecurity that often came with it.

It is all making sense now. I have beaten myself up over the years for not figuring out how to play the more typical game of professional success. But, now I see it. My success is not rooted in accepting ever-increasing responsibility and with it, larger churches and salaries that reflect that growth. My success is rooted in having become the consummate gig pastor. I have spent a career honing my ability to follow my call even if it meant financial sacrifices. Here is a quick picture of my ministry gig economy lifestyle:

  • Twenty years ago I worked as a hospice counselor while growing an emerging worshiping community into a new church development (NCD) without pay, on my own time, and in another denomination. That church is now 19 years old and thriving;
  • As I re-entered paid ministry after the NCD I accepted a half-time call to a church that was heading toward closure using my hospice background to walk with them through the stages of congregational grief and putting in place their legacy. I worked two other part-time jobs as a tentmaker to provide a livelihood.
  • That position eventually became full-time and I lived for four years in low-income housing as the presbytery minimum qualified me for such in the expensive Portland housing market.
  • Following the church closure/legacy work I accepted an interim position. One year into it I took a 13% cut in salary and time in order to help the church balance its budget before calling a permanent pastor. I balanced my own budget by housesitting for a year saving me the cost of rent;
  • GMC with Camper
    My “just in case” camper!

    I misjudged the transition between interim positions and ended up with ten months of unemployment. During that time I lived on my savings that came from housesitting, worked for three months as a gopher on a construction site and survived with food stamps.

  • As I neared the end of the next interim, I bought a 20-foot camper as insurance against homelessness. I still have that—just in case!
  • Now, as I enter my sixties, I ponder the reality that I have built no home equity and wonder how living in a ministry gig economy will impact my retirement planning.

Thursday was a big day for me. I had this sudden realization that God had been preparing me for this moment when I could lead the presbytery and the church through this time when more and more ministers are finding themselves in a gig economy. I had this realization that I wasn’t just lucky to get this position, but that I was meant to get this position. Over the years, a subtle shame has nagged at me that my ministry path was not more conventional. Now I realize that what the presbytery needs is unconventional. Conventionality will not be our way forward.

We were meant for each other in this moment.

how we live signThursday was a big day. I relegated my shame to the past. I will no longer apologize for my unconventional path. I will no longer apologize for doing NCD work in another denomination. I will no longer apologize for closing a church and putting in place its legacy. I will no longer apologize for living in low-income housing. I will no longer apologize for loading trash at construction sites between positions. I will no longer apologize for needing to fall back on food stamps. I will no longer apologize for keeping my camper handy, just in case!

I have always followed my call, even when it was financially costly for me. I will not apologize for that!

My friends, I am the consummate gig pastor.

You need me right now.

You need someone who is more dedicated to call than convention.

I am that person.

Thank you for calling me. Thank you for paying me.

This is one good gig!

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

The Ministry Gig Economy

baltimore GABefore the world turned on its axis I had plans to be in Baltimore about now attending the biennial General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I have to admit that GA is kind of fun as an executive presbyter. I have no real duties or obligations other than networking, observing the mood of the PCUSA, supporting our commissioners, and celebrating our connectionalism on the streets, in meetings and over good food and drink.

This year is completely different, of course. I watched the proceedings of the General Assembly from a couch, with a “beverage of choice,” and a cat trying to climb over my keyboard. One of my favorite parts of the General Assembly is the election of the moderator(s) that begins the General Assembly. I like it because the speeches, the questions to the candidates and the election itself tells us a lot about who the church is and where it is going.

street and bentleyThe real news of the evening this past Saturday was the election on the first ballot of two minority co-moderators, ruling elder, Elona Street-Stewart, and minister commissioner, the Rev. Gregory Bentley. Given the times we are in and our emphasis on holding a mirror up to our denomination with regard to race their election was a good sign that we intend to answer the call of this moment in history. We can sure hope and pray that is the case.

But this blog is actually not about this historic moment. Many others reported on that and you can read about that here.

gig economyI want to highlight something that one of the other candidates said when she was answering the question about what issues she saw our denomination dealing with in coming years. The Rev. Marie Mainard-O’Connell, clearly one of our younger commissioners, spoke for the need to put resources and infrastructure in place for what is becoming a “Ministry Gig Economy.”

This immediately caught my attention. Her point was that more and more our churches are only able to afford part-time ministers and ministers are no longer able to depend on their ministry for their livelihood. I knew that was true. I personally have experienced that. Twice I have accepted less than full-time work in ministry and three times I have moved to follow full-time ministry.

I knew this was a growing trend, but not until I actually sat down and ran the numbers did I realize that this is not a future issue to prepare for. This is an issue to attend to NOW. Of our 99 churches and new worshiping communities 47 of them are served by either part-time ministers or no minister at all.

You get the figures. That is nearly half of our churches. It tells us that we need an infrastructure that is just as supportive of those who are cobbling together two, three or four jobs as those who have been fortunate enough to have full-time calls, The young reverend was right. We need to get our heads around what it means to do ministry in a gig economy.

So here are some questions you might ask of your church if you are one of the nearly half of our congregations that is served by a part-time minister:

  • Do your expectations for your minister match her part-time status? In other words, if you are paying him for half-time do you only expect only half the work and time investment?
  • Would you be willing to yoke your church with another church having one full-time minister serving two churches?
  • Would you consider contracting with a Circuit Rider-type minister adapting your worship times to allow for a minister to move from one church to another over a three to four day period?
  • Do you have lay leadership that can run everything in the church with the exception of preaching, administering the Sacraments and moderating the Session?
  • Would you be able to contract for more pastoral leadership if you had less building?
  • Would you consider being a satellite to a larger church sharing pastoral resources?

beach houseYears ago, executive staff told me that I should expect to either have to move around the country in order to maintain full-time ministry or cobble work together in one geographical location. They were right and they were saying the same thing that the Rev. Mainard-O’Connell said when she named the “Ministry Gig Economy” as one of church’s pressing issues in her speech for co-moderator.

Data in the presbytery office confirms this. Applications for full-time ministry often come flowing in by the dozens. Applications for part-time calls dribble in often one or two at a time and sometimes not at all.

The Ministry Gig Economy is already upon us.

Full-time ministry is increasingly becoming a luxury.

  • How will your church’s expectations change in order to adjust to this new reality?
  • How will you, as a minister, reframe your ministry skills to better fit a gig economy?
  • How will we as the presbytery adapt our structure to provide support and resources to the growing ministry gig economy?

These are our questions.

This is our new life.

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

Scrambled Brains for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

eggsI don’t know about you, but I feel like someone took an egg beater to my brain and made just enough quick strokes to initiate a scramble of my thoughts and the synapses that keep my mind organized.

Actually, I do know about you.

I have heard from enough of you to know that many of us are experiencing this same thing. Repeatedly I hear, “A good day is one in which I survived.” I know what you mean. I have very few far off goals. My goal is to do what is most faithful for today,  be aware of my limits, get outside daily, love those closest to me and hope that is just going to be good enough.

On Mondays, I write a letter, titled, The Weekly Word, to all of the active pastors and Clerks of Session of the Presbytery of the Cascades. As I concluded my thoughts this past week I wrote, “…only do what your body and soul will allow. What doesn’t get done may be what needs to be let go.”

mountain peakIt felt so strange to write that and yet so right. It was strange in that I have lived much of my life focused on far off dreams and long term ambitious goals. I have organized my daily life based on what I wanted to accomplish in the future. I have often pushed myself to my limits in the present moment in order to realize a future moment. This is why my comment felt strange for me.

Yet, at the same time, it seemed absolutely right. I have cycled most of my life and one of the things those of us who are endurance athletes learn is that one can push the body for great, extended periods of time as long as we don’t allow ourselves to go into oxygen deprivation. Endurance athletes know how to stay right at the edge of their aerobic (with oxygen) capacity without crossing over into one’s anaerobic (without oxygen) reserves.

The difference is this. A marathoner remains in aerobic capacity for an entire race with maybe the exception of the last few yards if they are working to out sprint a competitor. A 100-meter sprinter almost exclusively depends on their anaerobic reserves—no oxygen needed for that distance.

“Only do what your body and soul will allow,” I wrote.

marathonMarathoners know that if they exceed their aerobic capacity that it could be minutes before their body recovers as they slow their pace to a jog or a near walk. Marathoners know that they are in for the long haul and the most important thing they can do is run within the limits of their oxygen capacity. Even if a competitor is passing them, they know that exceeding their aerobic capacity will mean a certain crash and burn. It could mean the difference between winning a race and finishing in 100th place.

It was strange for me to write, “What doesn’t get done may be what needs to be let go.” I am used to setting a vision and having that vision dictate what I do and how hard I work. I am not used to saying or even comfortable saying that vision is going emerge out of what we cannot do. I am not used to admitting that my limits will actually have more impact on our future vision than my over-sized ambition.

road in forestThis is a strange new world. But it feels true and feels right. We cannot control the future. We can only control what we do today and how much we do today. We can only do what our body and our souls will allow. Anything more will put us into spiritual deprivation.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Damn. I never thought those words would ring so true.

Maybe it’s time to take this faith thing seriously!

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

Grief and Strawberries

Lament: A passionate expression of grief or sorrow.

Guitarist with flagThe word lament entered into my consciousness this week. First, my executive coach encouraged me to read Lamentations 3 in the Hebrew Bible as a way to emotionally frame my present experience of life. At about the same time a series of chords on my guitar started to play themselves. As I let the music flow out of me a working title began to emerge. I felt like I was writing “An American Lament.”

What my heart is saying my mind does not yet fully understand. But it is like grief and sorrow is pouring out of me and oozing from my pores. I so badly want to be up to the moment saying what needs to be said, showing up where people most need me, and being responsible to the calling of this position and this time. But I am amazed by how much time just attending to the presence of grief and sadness and often, anger, takes. There is a numbness and a paralysis that seems to have invaded the very marrow of my bones.

Yesterday I hit a wall.

I had intended to work a full day. But by early afternoon the signs of mental fatigue became clear as I sat staring blankly at emails with no hint of how to plow through them. I blasted one more email to the staff, “Flexing the rest of the afternoon off to get some fresh air and shut out the craziness for a bit.”

riverI often drive when I need to clear my head and drive I did. Over the course of two hundred miles and five hours, I drove through the Willamette Valley countryside, followed the Clackamas River up into the mountains, looked at big beautiful wet drooping trees, walked along the cascading river, stopped for a cranberry/grapefruit Sobe and crunchy butter toffee peanuts, listened to John Denver, the Lumineers, Seals and Croft, and Ray LaMontagne among others, and stopped for fresh Oregon strawberries to adorn my bowl of ice cream.

strawberriesIn other words, I replaced the grief with goodness. For a few hours I filled myself with life and beauty, music and munchies. I breathed some of the world’s heaviness out and breathed the lightness of God in.

Was it a once-for-all magical cure to the grief and sorrow of our time? No, but it was enough for that day. Enough to remind me that today, too, I need to walk along the river near my apartment again, listen to more music and FaceTime with loved ones. Enough to remind me that every day must make room for some grief and some goodness.

This is the rhythm of my life. This is the rhythm of our time.

Tonight I will work on another verse of my song, “An American Lament” and then…

I will eat strawberries and ice cream.

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

A Pastoral Letter in Response to the Floyd Death

The following is a letter I sent to the minister members of  our presbytery yesterday. I share it with you now as my Holy Breadcrumbs submission this week. It applies to all of us.

Dear Members of the Presbytery of the Cascades,

Like many of you in active ministry, I had planned one message for today only to realize that the world had shifted over the weekend. It is hard to believe that a message meant to provide resources to help our congregations negotiate through the coronavirus pandemic suddenly felt incidental. But that is the reality of our current American context.

A virus just as deadly as the coronavirus seems to be sweeping across our nation right now. America’s deep stain of structural racism is impossible to ignore. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers and the response is just the most recent and obvious sign that racism is deeply imbedded in America’s DNA.

While the nation tries to share equally the burden of the coronavirus African Americans are dying at a disproportionate rate (23% compared to their 13% representation). African Americans make up 37.9% of the federal prison population—triple their proportional representation. Natural disasters often have a deeper effect on minority populations who live in areas with substandard infrastructure. While most Americans are not overtly racist, we cannot avoid the reality that we participate in a system that is racist.

It is time for those of us who call ourselves Presbyterian to hold a mirror up to ourselves. Despite our good intentions we are still a denomination that is 93% white. We are, in general, more educated than the average American and have at our disposal economic, social and political power. I am not a sociologist, but I believe this is what we have come to call white privilege. I have it. You have it. Most of us in the PCUSA benefit from it.

While trying to digest the rapid unfolding of America’s anger I was struck by the images of people, protesters and police alike, kneeling in honor of George Floyd. I was struck by the multiple and powerful meanings of kneeling that occurred to me. The words from “Let Us Break Bread Together” scrolled across my brain. When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, Oh Lord, have mercy on me.

It is time for us Presbyterians to take a knee. We take a knee to remind ourselves that, like the police officer who pinned Mr. Floyd down, we have power over the vulnerable. Even when we don’t intend it we cause pain and sometimes, even death. We take a knee to remind ourselves that we live in a system where some of us are holding others down by virtue of our privileged position.

We fall on our knees in an act of repentance. We fall on our knees to confess our corporate sin. It is time to fall on our knees, to hold a mirror up to our lives and our structures, and confess that we are participants in a structural racism that is as deadly as the coronavirus.

At the 222nd General Assembly held in Portland in 2016 the commissioners considered and approved an overture submitted by our presbytery titled, “On Choosing to be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25.” That overture took root and has become a national movement now called Matthew 25 in the PCUSA: A Bold Vision and Invitation. One of the three foci of this movement is to dedicate ourselves as a denomination to “Dismantling Structural Racism.”

The Presbytery of the Cascades is proud to be the catalyst for this movement. Now it is time to lead again and embody the Matthew 25 initiative in our congregations and our presbytery. This is our moment.

The PCUSA has numerous resources dedicated to understanding structural racism and ways to act including a 21-Day Challenge, scriptural resources, explanations, and book recommendations. Consider the resources for yourself. Consider them for your family. Consider them for your congregation.

The facts behind the death of George Floyd are still to be determined. But one thing we do know is that this event and this moment calls us to once again fall on our knees and cry out, “Oh Lord, have mercy on me. Have mercy on us.”

In grief and in hope…

Brian

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

My Hunch

I admit that this is just a hunch. But for nearly fifteen years I have been saying, “I think the future of the Church is going to emerge from the dialogue between our rich historic traditions and emerging spiritualities.”

Much of my work is based on this hunch. It’s also the reason I have chosen to live in the awkward space between the institutional church and the unformed spiritual searching of many of my contemporaries.

straddling-the-canyonShortly after I was elected to this position a trusted colleague said, “It’s like you are the presbytery’s inside/outside candidate.” What I believe he was referring to was the fact that I am insider in that I have served the PCUSA for more than two decades and I am an outsider in that much of my writing has targeted people who are trying to craft a spiritual identity out of multiple religious options. It seems I have always been a person straddling divergent worlds.

Years ago I conducted a survey of one of our congregations before preaching a series on the shifting religious landscape in America. I based the survey on qualities that Diana Butler Bass had identified as marking the difference between the religious and the spiritual in Christianity After Religion. If I had done this in the broader community the results would not have surprised me. What did surprise me is that 60% of this traditional Presbyterian church saw themselves as more spiritual than religious.

I saw this as a good sign and a hopeful trend for the Church. While many people outside of the church see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” it was reassuring that regular church attendees fell into the camp of “spiritual but attending religious services.” I think the perception is that there are two distinct groups—the religiously faithful who belong to church communities and the spiritually curious who reject religious affiliation.

TogetherBut the reality is that one cannot draw such clean lines between the two. There is much more overlap than our perceptions allow. Many of the people I have worked with over the years in the church feed their spiritual curiosity on their own. They tell me that they love the church for the sense of community, the commitment to service and, often, the music. They also tell me that they read books and have conversations with friends that they don’t dare share on Sunday morning. And people outside of the church often tell me that they yearn for the kind of community that they see in churches, but aren’t willing to subject themselves to having their beliefs questioned.

My hunch is that the future of the Church already exists. It exists in the overlap between those who have remained committed to the Church, but who keep their spirituality hidden and private and those whose spirituality is outside the center of the Church, but who still yearn for the kind of community that the Church represents.

freeMany years ago I preached a sermon series on the shifting landscape of American religion and the movement toward identifying more as spiritual than religious. To my surprise, dozens of people identified themselves as already well along in that shift.

I thought I was educating them.

Instead, what I did was liberate them.

I thought I was informing them.

Instead, it turned out, I was freeing them.

The future of the Church is not way out in front of us.

My hunch is that it already exists right here among us.

Are you the future?

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

Have Space, Will Share

Tawanamas Falls
Tamanawas Falls

It was the last Saturday before life was largely shut down in villages, towns, and cities across our presbytery. It had already been an intense week of trying to stay ahead of the implications of the growing coronavirus pandemic on our congregations. I was fried! So I did what I often do when I have gone numb from the intensity of work. I headed up to the mountains and enjoyed a good snow hike up to Tamanawas Falls about thirty miles south of Hood River. It was a day when I had to shut “all things church” out of my head for a few hours.

I was not successful!

After enjoying a good meal and an especially tasty, bitter IPA at Full Sail Brewery I decided to wander slowly through the town of Hood River. I didn’t need the exercise, but I did need the meandering meditative pace that had been impossible in weeks past. I peered in the windows of gift shops. I checked out the most recent winter biking gear. I stopped at a coffee haunt for a chai tea latte and let my mind go blank.

Hood River 11The day was nearing an end and so I decided to walk a few more blocks before making my way back to my car and driving back to the Portland area. As I walked by an especially attractive old stone building, I stopped. The sign above the large double doors said “Brimstone Boulders”.

I was curious. Could it be a grave stone business or possibly the office building for a landscaping business? Might it even be some offbeat museum for local geological finds? Somewhere back in my mind the thought of this being a church playfully teased me.

Hours were posted next to the door indicating it was open and I walked in. I wasn’t ready to pay an entrance fee, but I wanted to at least find out what Brimstone Boulders was and why it was in this almost church-like structure.

Hood River 8I smiled broadly as soon as I crossed the threshold into the main entrance. A long pew was stretched below the window to the left. Organ pipes were decoratively displayed at the check-in counter. Large stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes filtered the sun in an array of multi-colored rays across the floor. In the middle of the room, clearly an old sanctuary, towered a number of man-made boulders specifically designed to challenge your every day, indoor rock climber.

I had intended to put “all things church” aside for the day. Instead, I had run into a story of the transformation and the repurposing of our church buildings.

Hood River 4
Conor Byrne, co-owner

Conor, who co-owns the rock climbing gym with his wife, Jen, spent about twenty minutes showing me around and telling me the story of how this once Methodist Church had become Brimstone Boulders.Conor had grown up in the Catholic Church and still fondly remembered his youth group days. The church had had an impact on him. Despite leaving the church as is routine for many Millenials, Conor still yearned for the sense of community, the shaping of youth, and a place committed to intentional values.

This is a strange time to write this blogpost as most, if not all of our churches, are vacant and unused while we all quarantine ourselves during this coronavirus pandemic. But I do know that even when many of our congregations do return to their buildings that they will return to some buildings that are underused. Many of our churches have old Sunday school classrooms that sit empty year round or have become storage rooms for relics of Christmas pageants past. Some churches only use their fellowship halls for a couple of hours every Sunday. Offices that at one time held multiple staff now have a layer of dust covering old commentaries and lectionary resources.

Hood River 3I think the thing that struck me as I talked with Conor and wandered around the repurposed building was that Conor and his contemporaries were as committed to creating community as we are in our churches. They aren’t just a rock climbing gym. They hold youth camps and team training events. They host community nights that are more about connecting than climbing. They post their values for all to see.

On their homepage in big letters are the words, “OLD CHURCH, NEW ROCK CLIMBING GYM”. Conor could have downplayed the fact that the rock climbing gym was in an old church as if that might keep people away. But for him it was just the opposite. The fact that it is in an old church is the attraction. It says something about the values they want to nurture and the community they want to create. You can feel it as soon as you walk in. This isn’t a gym. This is a sacred place that happens to be committed to building community and character through rock climbing.

Hood River 7If you have space and are willing to share think about connecting with some of our young people in the community. Many of our young people are returning to the values of their grandparents—simplicity, relationships, connection, do-it-yourself, and traditional values. You might find that you have more in common with them than you think.

In fact, make a deal.

Ask them to learn how to quilt in exchange for them teaching you how to rock climb!

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

Two Majors, One Life

Typical of many college students I had a hard time landing on a major during the first two years of my education. I had grown up both in the church and on the athletic field. While I started college declaring a political science major, I quickly shifted to a major in religion after falling in love with Dr. Bill Chalker (some of you remember him) at the College of Idaho.

basketballBut I had no intention of becoming a pastor and, given that, saw no way to craft a livelihood from religious studies. After some back and forth I eventually ended up with two majors—religion and sports and fitness center management. My thinking was that the sports major would provide a livelihood as I imagined working toward a YMCA executive director position and the religion major would provide a lifelong hobby, as I just couldn’t stay away from it.

My obsession with religious studies didn’t end with a college degree, however. After discovering that three of the executive directors I knew in the YMCA system had a seminary background, I found my reason to continue religious studies. I entered San Francisco Theological Seminary and was hired on by the YMCA of Marin County. I found myself still following two majors and one life.

Eventually I had to make choice between my seminary education and my YMCA employment as my then wife and I were raising a family and I couldn’t maintain both and still be a good father and husband.

SnowshoeingDespite the rigors of following two seemingly separate interests, I was happiest when both of these passions were part of my everyday experience. Those of you who know me best know that while I love much about the rhythms and the traditions of the church, I feel just as close to God and to the Sacred when I am propelling myself over a mountain on my bike, snowshoeing in the solitude of a green forest blanketed by fresh, white, fluffy powder, and hiking along a glacier-fed stream cascading over polished rocks.

For a short period in my early adulthood, I had two majors and one life. Ever since my decision to abandon the path leading to the YMCA in favor of seminary education, I have felt that I have been trying to find my way back to that unique integration. I have been trying to discover and craft a spiritual life that honors the wisdom of the body as much as the curiosity of the mind. I have been trying to live into an “embodied spirituality” as one good friend and colleague expressed it years ago.

I write this the week following my blog titled, “Oh my, oh my, oh my…” where I was reflecting on the sensuality and erotic language of the Christian mystics. I had wondered aloud if it was time to make room in our churches for those whose relationship with God is more sensual and rooted in a physical yearning for union and communion. I wondered if it was time to make room for those who are more inclined to speak of their “love affair” with God rather than the more typical “Love God and love commandment.”

fine diningI had many people who responded to that blog with the sentiment, “Yes, it’s about time!” One commenter simply pointed out that if we are to love God with our whole selves then we ought to start honoring the ways our bodies also yearn to love and be with God. In the church this can sound dangerous. It means honoring such sensual pleasures as enjoying good food and wine, celebrating the gifts of sexuality, and worshiping the God who appears on the mountain or in the stream.

I am sensing that there is a great yearning both among us to heal this great divorce between our minds, our spirits and our bodies. Like me, many people are feeling the need to have two majors and one life. That is, the need to have an “embodied spirituality”—a theology that listens as much to the wisdom of our flesh and bodies as it does to the rationality of the mind.

forest hikeIt appears that there is a slow movement toward this integration. More pastors are now yoga instructors teaching in the community and the church. I know of some churches that now offer dance classes and dance events. Hiking and walking groups are popping up in churches. A few ambitious churches are leading Camino pilgrimages on the 500-mile route to the shrine of St. James in Spain. One Jewish community is completely based on enjoying God’s beauty in the mountains of Colorado. Groups like Earth Church are appearing in various locales.

Forty years ago I was in a rare place where I had two majors and one life. I was able to love to God with my mind and my body and call it part of the same Christian spirituality.

Worship can be in a pew. It can also be in a forest.

Worship can be with our mind. It can also be with our body.

Pretty sure God appreciates it all.

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