A Liturgy of Yearning

I have always enjoyed the rich contemplative tune of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel that most of our churches sing during Advent each year. But one year stands out for me above all others. I was serving as an interim pastor in Yachats in 2012. I had already completed the bulletin for that Third Sunday in Advent service. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was already slated as the hymn to be sung after the sermon. All of my planning was complete with the exception of tidying up the last few edits to my sermon.

But I had not planned on everything. On Friday, a gunman showed up at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and shot and killed 26 people, 20 of them children between the ages of six and seven. The remaining six adults killed were school teachers and staff.

Christmas bulletinPastors are always trying to respond to the spiritual needs of our members and I found that I had to find some way to attend to the shock and grief that our members and nation felt. I didn’t want to start over and craft a whole other service. But I wanted to make sure that the themes of Advent that I was planning didn’t feel out of sync with the emotions of the day.

A simple change in the service accomplished both—I was able to stick with the service I had planned and make room for the grief of that Sunday morning. As we sung O Come, O Come, Emmanuel a liturgist read the names of the victims between each verse, honoring six or seven at a time. I will admit it. It was tough. Many of us had a hard time vocalizing the words between our tears. It was both painful and healing. It allowed us to name our grief and express through song our yearning for Emmanuel, “God with us.”

We have not had a Sandy Hook experience this year, but the combined grief related to the deadly coronavirus, the increasingly awareness of how deeply racism permeates our society, the devastating wildfires in our presbytery and national anxiety over our political life give new meaning to the yearning for God’s presence that O Come, O Come, Emmanuel  points to.

Below are links for for a sung responsive liturgy based on the hymn that you can use in one of the two remaining Advent services. You might use it for a call to worship or prayer. Or you may just choose to find a quiet place to sit, join in the liturgy and reflect on the meaning of Advent this year.

Watch it here: YouTube Link

Download for your Advent service here: Link for File Download

Here is the printed version of the liturgy:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Answer our yearning, O God, Emmanuel.
We are a lonely and isolated people
Separated by our ego and by our sin,
Physically distanced by our love and concern for each other.
We want connection. We want to hold and to be held.
We want you be with us, O God, Emmanuel.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Answer our yearning, O God, Emmanuel.
There is a heaviness among us, the weight of cascading crises.
We count deaths and with each one a thousand stories come to an end,
A lifetime of memories gets frozen in time.
We are ready to play again. We want to dance. We want to feel alive.
We want you to be with us, O God, Emmanuel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and discord cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Answer our yearning, O God, Emmanuel.
Division, disunity and distrust are feeling too normal.
We compete rather than cooperate.
We lift ourselves up on the backs of others.
Our eyes betray suspicion and wariness.
We want to be one again. We want to love and enjoy our sisters and brothers.
We want the fabric of our lives to be whole again.
We want you to be with us, O God, Emmanuel.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

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

The Baptismal Threshold

In 1988 I had the rare pleasure and experience of writing my own baptismal service. At the time, I was taking the Worship and Sacraments class in seminary. Baptismal theology and liturgies were a normal part of the course. I was also negotiating my way through the ordination process. In the course of that, the Candidates’ Committee (now referred to as the Committee on Preparation for Ministry) asked me to produce some record of the date and place of my baptism.

baptismI had always assumed I had been baptized since I had grown up from the age of seven in the Presbyterian Church. But the first few years of my life were chaotic as my mother had left our little family and my sister and I were moved around to relatives in three different states while my dad got his feet back on the ground. In the search for a baptismal record I could find nothing. I finally approached my dad and asked him about it. He mulled it over for a moment saying, “We must have had you baptized, but now that I think about it, I don’t recall where it might have been or when it was.”

Between my dad’s confession and the lack of record anywhere I finally assumed that my baptism had gotten overlooked. The committee needed some proof before I could proceed with the ordination process and I had none.

It was perfect timing!

I asked my seminary professor if my semester project could be writing my own baptismal service and submitting a paper describing all the elements of the service. He was delighted that my semester project would become as much experiential as academic.

conch shellI will never forget the experience. I employed some of the ancient liturgies and by the time the service ended everyone must have gotten a good education in the theological significance of baptism. Two rituals especially stood out. I used a conch shell for the application of the water. During the service Dr. Howard Rice recited, “In the name of the Father (pour), and of the Son (pour) and of the Holy Spirit (pour). I was drenched. Prepared for the moment, I then stripped my long sleeve dress shirt off and donned a large, over-sized, nearly see-through cotton shirt representing the “new garment of Christ.”

Baptism is largely about symbolically crossing a threshold as we “drown to our old life” and rise as new people in a covenant relationship with God through Christ.

For me that day represented the crossing of a threshold as the circumstances surrounding my baptism reminded me of a former chaotic life and also reminded me of the new life I had found in the community of the Church. By the time I was baptized I had already been in the church for two decades, been confirmed as a member, had a religion degree and was nearing seminary graduation. While the baptism itself did not signify a great threshold it did point to the threshold I had crossed nearly twenty years before as a child.

This is a strange time to write about baptism. One would think I could wait another few weeks for the actual “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday in January. But the word threshold has been crossing my mind for weeks.

crossing a thresholdIn the literature around “The Hero’s Journey” one of the early stages is the “Crossing of the Threshold.” In the Star Wars movies we clearly see this in the first episode, Star Wars: A New Hope, as Luke Skywalker is encouraged by Obi-Wan Kenobi to join the Resistance against the Death Star. But he feels obligated to help his uncle and aunt on their desert farm and refuses the call. Rushing back to the farm to make sure that his aunt and uncle are safe, he discovers that Storm Troopers have already been there leaving his elder relatives lifeless bodies in the sand. This is the threshold moment for Luke. He realizes that his former life is now gone. He feels he only has one choice—to join the resistance, to go forward.

I can’t help but think that we are at a threshold moment.

Months ago we might have wished to return to our church buildings and resume our normal routines and traditions. But even those who talk about a return like this are saying that things will be different. They don’t want to abandon the connections that they have made through online worship and prayer groups. Meetings that generally took laborious planning and trips across town are being rethought. Why fight traffic at night during the dinner hour when a quick Zoom call could just as easily handle the agenda?

The point is I am hearing less about returning to our former life and more about leaning into a new future. I hear a pull toward something new and uncertain rather than a hope for something tried and true and known.

That is what baptism is about. That is what the Hero’s Journey teaches us. There are points in our lives when there is no going back. There is only stepping by faith into a new future. There is only drowning to one way of life and rising to new way of life.

It’s happening to me. It’s happening to you.

Let’s do this together.

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

Shift Happens

Something is happening. I am noticing it on my nearly daily walks.

Bicycle racerSome of you know, if you look far enough back in my history, that I am a trained athlete. When it comes to my body and setting ambitious physical goals I can be pretty disciplined. Three years ago I set my sights on climbing to Everest Base Camp on my bike and spent the four months prior to that mentally and physically preparing for the feat. I know how to push my body now for a future payoff.

That is why I know something is happening.

Typically, in the winter, when I can’t swim or get into the gym I walk. But my walks are meant to keep me in shape, keep the pounds off, and not lose too much physical conditioning over the rainy months in Oregon. In other words, I tend to push hard on my walks keeping up a pace that gives me confidence that I will be ready for the next physical feat when spring returns.

But something is happening.

Not too far into my walks these days (generally in the first mile) the push evaporates. A voice from inside calls out to me saying, “Slow it down, buddy! Contemplate, feel and breathe.” It seems to be saying, “Let the future come to you, Brian. Quit trying so hard.”

shiftI struggle when it happens. I am obsessive about getting my daily exercise. I want to get my heart rate up for a good aerobic workout. I want to feel like I am winning against the winter funk. I want to show that Oregon winters are not too great an obstacle to overcome for this trained athlete.

But my soul is crying out, “Slow it down. Let life come to you. Make room for God to show up.”

It reminds me of the preaching story about white missionaries on a trek in the Outback in Australia. Accompanied by Aboriginies, one day the white missionaries get up, prepare for another day of hiking and discover that their local companions are refusing to move. Frustrated that they can not get their companions to pack up and hike they finally ask the interpreter to find out what is wrong. The answer they get back is, “We have to let our souls catch up to us. We left them behind a day or two ago.”

WalkingI can feel this same dynamic at work in me on my walks. Nearly every day I start off my walk ready to conquer a certain number of miles and check off the accomplishment in my DayTimer. I am determined to keep my discipline to stay in shape, keep the weight off and maintain my conditioning over the winter. And nearly every day, something happens. An unknown force deep in my soul slams on the brakes and my race-like pace suddenly shifts into a slow, reflective meander. My soul demands attention and my body submits to this seemingly greater authority.

It’s a strange experience. My usual pace is a way of preparing me for a future I want and am willing to discipline myself to get there. This new pace is a way of allowing the future to come to me—no work, just receptivity. My usual pace reveals how much I like to be in charge. This new pace acknowledges someone else and something else is in charge.

I write this to you because I am hearing something similar among colleagues, church members, and family and friends. I am hearing in almost every meeting and conversation how people don’t have any more energy to try to hold onto a life they once took for granted. I keep hearing how people are feeling beaten into submission. It’s no longer about beating this thing, but about learning to live with it.

I hear in more ways than one that we are moving from seeing this time as an obstacle to overcome and more as a gift to accept. I think that’s what is happening on my walks. I start out with an intention to overcome this massive obstacle that has been thrown in my path and somewhere in the first mile my soul grabs my whole body and says, “Stop. Slow down. Receive this time as a gift.”

Interesting. Just in time for Thanksgiving.

What a year.


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

Fragile and Fertile

“Fragile and Fertile”

Those are the words that keep showing up in my notes to churches as I end my greetings with something along the lines of “Know that my prayers are with you in this fragile and fertile time.”

butterfly-transformationThe combination is intentional. Over the years, I have discovered that my most transformative work has occurred when working with people and congregations who find themselves in a fragile position. At the same time, some of my most difficult work has come in working with people and congregations who say they want growth and transformation, but who are essentially comfortable with the status quo. Getting change when people are essentially comfortable, even when they say they want change, is almost impossible!

gardenI remember the annual tradition from my childhood when I first learned about the relationship between fragility and fertility. My dad was locally famous for his over-sized garden in our small suburban backyard plot. My dad grew up on a farm and even when we moved to a cookie cutter neighborhood, he was not able to part with the large garden that supported his family of ten as a child. That garden (that really was the envy of the neighbors) took up over a third of our backyard and was 900 square feet of corn, beans, radishes, lettuce, squash, kohlrabi, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, peas, carrots, beets, and strawberries.

But I dreaded the spring every year as I my dad drug me out of bed Saturday mornings to till the soil. Shovelful by shovelful we turned over that soil, broke it up and took what was a hard concrete-like bed of soil and turned it into a rich crumbly layer of earth ready act like a womb for waiting seeds. Only later did he learn that a rototiller was just as effective and took one-tenth of the time. But he didn’t discover that in time for me to enjoy lazy Saturday mornings in bed.


I remember to this day that lesson from the earth. Had we tried to plant seeds in the non-receptive hardened soil that emerged from winter snows very few of the seeds my dad threw out would have sprouted. It was only after loosening up the soil, breaking up the clods, and creating a fragile and fertile bed of soil did we have a garden where seeds would grow and sprout and produce. That rich culture of summer goodness only emerged after breaking up the culture of hardened soil.

Of course, this isn’t news to those of us who rely on the stories of the Bible to guide us. The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 tells the same story. A farmer went out sow the annual seed. Some of the seed fell on hardened dirt (like the dirt in our garden every spring) and the birds quickly ate it. Some of the seed fell on rocky ground, sprouted quickly but withered in the sun. Some of the seed fell among the thorns and was choked out. Some of the seed fell on soil that had been tilled and broken up and it produced a garden just like my dad’s garden! Rich and full and abundant!

We all know that this is a fragile time. But in the same breath I cannot help but add that this is also a fertile time. I am convinced that the two go together. It was the lesson that I learned as a child as I was forced into the backbreaking work of tilling the soil shovelful by shovelful every spring. It was the lesson I learned in working with juvenile delinquents many years ago—the more fragile they felt about their lives the more they were open to growth and change. It was the lesson I learned in congregations—fragility and fertility almost always go hand in hand.

Know that my prayers are with you in the fragile time.

And know that I will help you take advantage of this fertile moment.

It’s important that we don’t let a good crisis go to waste.

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

No Matter Who the President Is…

It was an interesting week. Of course, this doesn’t need to be said. I am sure that everyone experienced it as interesting in their own unique way. It was interesting to me because I generally start working with a theme for my Holy Breadcrumbs blog on Friday with the intention of publishing it at 10:00 p.m. the following Wednesday. This week I chose no theme. I intentionally decided to wait to see what world awaited us after the presidential election.

Like all of us, I went to sleep on Tuesday night knowing that we would have to wait at least until the morning to know the outcome of the election. I woke up early, turned on the TV and pondered the reality that it might be days before a winner is projected and weeks before recounts and legal challenges run their course.

This is what I needed to know before I felt comfortable writing. Whatever message I had, I felt strongly that it had to be grounded in whatever reality we woke up to on Wednesday morning.

The message came to me quickly: No matter who emerges as the winner of this presidential election the church is still the church. The context may change, but our core essence remains the same. The issues we address may be unique, but the foundation from which we speak and act doesn’t shift.

I thought this was a good time to remind us of that foundation in the PCUSA—“The Great Ends of the Church.” For over a century we have referred back to these six great ends to remind us of who we are and what our mission is. They were originally adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1910 and found their way into our Book of Order in 1958. These Great Ends have endured through two World Wars, the 19th Amendment, a Modernist Controversy, the Great Depression, the fight for Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, terrorist attacks, and more recently what we are just calling 2020.

No matter who emerges as the winner of this presidential election the church is still the church.

I share our historic Great Ends with you along with some minor personal commentary.

The Great Ends of the Church:

  1. The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind. In other words, no matter who is president, we have a responsibility to proclaim a message that calls our nation and our world (humankind) to overcome the separation that exists between people and between people and God (salvation).
  2. The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. In other words, no matter who is president, we are called to bring the children of God (that is, all people!) into community where we shelter each other, nurture each other, and enjoy the gifts of connection and fellowship.
  3. The maintenance of divine worship. In other words, no matter who is president, we are called to show our gratitude for God and Life through sacramental acts, rituals that honor life’s rhythms, and expressions of joy and lament, wonder and awe.
  4. The preservation of the truth. In other words, no matter who is president, we have a responsibility to seek the truth, to protect the truth, to nurture the truth, to proclaim the truth, and to fight against anything that would distort the truth and present lies as truth.
  5. The promotion of social righteousness. In other words, no matter who is president, we have a responsibility to work for social justice, to advocate for equality between people, and to treat ALL people as God’s beloved children, siblings all of one human family.
  6. The exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world. In other words, no matter who the president is, we are called to embody the heavenly realm, practicing what we preach, and exhibiting the character of God through love, grace, forgiveness, mutual respect, peace and justice.

On the one hand, I found myself waiting until Wednesday morning to find out what our new reality was. But the fact of the matter is that the outcome of the election only gives us our context. It does not change our foundation or our core character.

Let’s do what we do.

Let’s be who we are.

The church is still the church no matter who the president is.

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

A Pre-Election Prayer

Dear Readers,

I am usually one who has no shortage of words. I very rarely find myself in the position of wondering what I am going to write for my next blog. Routinely, I publish one blog on Thursday morning and the next blog begins to form in my head and heart by Friday. By the time I actually sit down to write the blog on Wednesday I have been mulling over the theme for five days. I think the rhythm of weekly preaching for over twenty years never left me.

This week it was different. I had written one blog that held a mirror up to us regarding our structural racism and bias in the church. But given the fact that this is the last blog you will see before the coming election, it just didn’t feel right (even though I felt like I had something important to say). The energy of the blog felt like it wasn’t in tune with the energy of our congregations and community in this particular moment. I wrestled and wrestled with what to say at this critical moment. Nothing felt right. In the end, I was forced to write what probably should have been my starting point in the first place. I had no words or message for you. All I had was a prayer.

Today, five days before the election this is my pre-election prayer. I offer it to you as my gift and my hope.

Dear God,

I seem to be coming to you with no words. I am not sure what I am asking for or what I should be asking for. At moments I feel completely stymied by the overwhelming series of events that continue to flood  our nation. The sheer scope of it leaves me paralyzed, unsure of which way to act and which crisis to attend to first. At times, O God, a helplessness so uncharacteristic of me seems to seep into my bones. I am not a person given in to inaction and complacency, but at moments, I feel like I am frozen in my tracks.

I have no words, God. I want to offer some hopeful message. I want to provide some wise analysis of this chaotic and uncertain time. I want to be able to make sense of it all for others, playing the role of the spiritual guide and soulful companion that I have become accustomed to. I want to say, “We’ve got this folks!  All we’ve got to do is work a little harder and hang on a little longer.” But I don’t know that. I no longer trust that the answer is just that we’ve got to work a little harder and hang on a little longer.

And so, O God, I have no words. All I have is my broken, fearful self reaching out to you in honest desperation. I wished I had more. I am used to coming to you with my well-laid out plans. I am used to asking you for guidance as I lay out my next set of goals. I am used to telling you what good I plan to do in the world and then asking for your blessing. I am not used to coming to you broken, paralyzed and at a loss for words. I am not used to having to rely solely on faith and trust.

I have no words, God. But I do have some hope. It’s not a hope based on a picture of a future I can see. It’s a hope rooted in the belief that there is an essential goodness to the world. I guess my hope is in you, you who sit there ready to listen when we are ready to show up.

I have no wise words for the world today. But, I do have a prayer.

  • I pray that you will give us what we need for the world that awaits us Wednesday morning.
  • I pray that no matter what happens in this election that we will not turn on each other.
  • I pray that the anger and rage of our recent history will find its way into paths of healing.
  • I pray that your justice will undergird our actions and our communities.
  • I pray that love will heal us and if we cannot love then we will at least set aside our hate.
  • I pray that you give us the strength to do the long, hard work of reconciliation.
  • I pray that this national nightmare that has divided our nation will finally end.
  • I pray that grace will win out over vengeance.
  • I pray that however we move through this pandemic that we will do it together.
  • I pray that hearts will be softened toward each other.
  • I pray that suspicion will no longer linger just behind our eyes.
  • I pray that we will care as much about what happens to our neighbor as we do about what happens to us.
  • I pray for an imagined world of unity and mutual care.
  • I pray for life to feel humane again.
  • I pray for things that only seem to show up in my dreams.

I pray that our grandchildren will be proud of how we handle this moment.

I really have no words today, O God.

I just have a prayer.

May that be enough.

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

Giving Up and Letting Go

I remember very distinctly the difference between hospice patients who “fought the good fight” and didn’t give in to death until it snatched them away and hospice patients who allowed death to come to them as a gift.

Over the years, I began to develop an understanding that there was a subtle difference between giving up and letting to. The funny thing is that from the outside the two look very similar. Both seem to acknowledge and give in to a force greater than ourselves. The difference lies not in the act, but in the attitude.

I also remember very distinctly the difference in the families of those patients who refused to give up and those who allowed themselves to let go. The grief was much harder in the former. Death was not to be spoken of in the presence of the beloved family member. All energy was directed toward propping up the patient, fighting the enemy, and holding death off as if it was an Olympic endurance race.

Classic Trust Exercise

The rooms where patients who seemed to hold an attitude of letting go, however, had an emotional softness to them. Families shared touching and funny stories with each other. They used the sacred opportunity to resolve any lingering resentments and reinforce their love for each other. The presence of death in the room was not easy, but once it was accepted it became that friend who got the family talking about sensitive subjects and provided the glue for a lovely life-ending intimacy.

I was thinking about this when I happened to run across a Facebook presentation that had been recorded in November, 2011 just a few weeks after I returned from a 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage. In that presentation to the presbytery I had said, “I am convinced that history is going to look back on us as the ‘letting go people’ the letting go generation.” I had said that after being convinced during that pilgrimage that a world was passing away and that God was doing a new thing

I could have never imagined the strange and unsettling series of crises and events that we are now calling 2020—the coronavirus pandemic, civil unrest, wildfires, and an election that has this country on edge. I am finding fewer people who seem to have the energy to “fight the good fight” and somehow come out as victors through sheer grit and determination. I also know that we Presbyterians are not inclined toward “giving up.” It’s just not in our spiritual and ecclesiastical DNA.

Victors and losers

I am convinced that the tone of the moment is telling us that the way forward is not going to be by hoping against hope that we beat this thing back. I am convinced that getting to the other side is going come as we “let go” of our expectations of how this all should end. I am convinced that our hope must be built on trust—that there is a goodness on the other side that we can’t yet see or possibly even imagine.

I have come to believe that giving up is a position of defeat and that letting go is a position of trust. Fighting the urge to give up assumes that we are in the center of our world. Allowing ourselves to let go assumes that God (or the greater forces of Life) are in the center. The former relies on our own resources; the latter relies on the resources of the One who initiated Life itself.

Our hope is not in the end, but in the journey getting there

I don’t know what our congregations are going to look like after we re-emerge from this pandemic.

I don’t know how radically different we will be when we finally come to terms with the structural racism in our churches.

I don’t know how the wildfires and our response to them will change our sense of connectionalism and mission.

I don’t know what kind of America awaits us on the other side of this election.

What I do know is that something beautiful happens when we “let go” and trust that a wisdom much wiser than us exists in the world.

What I do know is that when we accept the ending of one world the next world has a way of showing up in wonderful and surprising ways.

What I do know is that resisting the inevitable only puts it off and makes the journey more painful.

“In life and in death we belong to God,” begins the PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith.

I am convinced that we need to believe that as if our lives depended on it.

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

Second was my First

In 1989 I accepted my first pastoral call out of seminary. I loaded up my family, all of whom were Westerners, and headed to Racine, Wisconsin, where I was installed as the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, a church deeply influenced by Jan Hus, the renowned Czech theologian. The church had 178 members, a small church by the standards of that time and, therefore, appropriate for an inexperienced recent seminary grad like myself.

Czech theologian, Jan Hus

The ministry was short-lived as both they and we discovered that the West and the Midwest were culturally different and I was not up to the challenge. After nearly four years of ministry we all decided that the most healthy thing to do was to separate and allow our family to move back West and allow them to find a pastoral leader who was a better fit for them.

I largely lost touch with the people of Second church over the years. That is, until this past week, when I received a letter forwarded to me by one of the former members. I read the letter both with a tinge of sadness and a dose of pride and gratitude. The letter was written by the current pastor to the 47 remaining members of the congregation announcing that the church building had been sold.

Logo that I helped design for their 100th Anniversary and used for their 125th.

Obviously the decision to sell had already been made as the letter indicated that the sale had gone more quickly than expected. The letter was an invitation for members to show up at the church one last time, offer prayers of gratitude for the ministry at that site, take small mementos as physical reminders and offer one last goodbye.

But the church didn’t close!

The letter also indicated that the congregation would continue to meet virtually until they re-emerged from the pandemic. And then the pastor assured them that they would then decide where and how they would meet. The church building was sold, but the congregation would continue to thrive.

In an email exchange with Rachel Yates, Milwaukee Presbytery executive, she said that there are hopes that Second will pave the way toward re-imagining a new model of ministry. Because the congregation didn’t dissolve the proceeds from the sale of their building remain with the people of Second. Now, as they look to the future they don’t have a set building to return to, but they do have a sizable financial portfolio that will allow them to re-imagine ministry and re-invent themselves.

Second Presbyterian Church, Racine, WI

Ms. Yates said that the leadership of Second began to see the pandemic as an unexpected blessing. As the pandemic lingered on they realized that they didn’t have to have a building to be the church. They could still connect with each other. They could still engage in and commit to mission. They could still pray. They could continue to be faithful.

Ms. Yates added that already two of the congregations in their presbytery have traveled a similar path. Both of them sold their buildings and began worshipping in senior living centers where their members and the residents of the facilities both join for worship. The congregations continue with new people and in a new setting made possible by releasing themselves from the burden of their buildings.

I would imagine that those decisions have freed up thousands of dollars that no longer need to be dedicated to building maintenance and now can be used for a reimagined mission in the community. Buildings can be a great blessing for ministry. They can also, at some point, become more of a burden.

This is a tough time. It is tough for each of us personally and tough for our church communities. But this particular moment also gives us a rare opportunity—an unexpected blessing, as the people of Second say. Many of us are already continuing to do ministry without the benefit of a building. We don’t have to imagine what it might be like. We are already doing it.

This is the moment to ask the following the questions:

  • “Is our church building more of a burden or a blessing?”
  • “Does our building restrict us from being creative with mission or does it provide the foundation for creativity?”
  • “What will serve the mission of Jesus Christ most faithfully—the use of our building or the proceeds from the sale of the building?”
  • “Is the future of ministry in our community based on bringing people to our building or will it be based on us getting out into the community?”
  • “Are there other congregations ready to re-imagine their ministry in light of the pandemic with whom we could partner?”
  • “What are the unexpected blessings of this pandemic?”

As I said, I read the letter from Second Presbyterian Church with a tinge of sadness and a dose of pride and gratitude. The sadness was associated with the attachment that I know these people must still feel for the warm sanctuary, the organ and choir loft, the large lawn where brats and fresh corn were served at their annual picnic, and the symbol of God’s love on that particular block of Racine.

The warm, inviting and homey sanctuary

But I also felt a dose of pride and gratitude. Now that I am a presbytery executive, I know that the future of the Presbyterian Church will be built on the faithfulness of congregations who have the courage to let go of ministry as they have known it in order to be open to ministry as God might be shaping it. Second Presbyterian Church in Racine, Wisconsin is one of those courageous congregations.

To the faithful people of Second Presbyterian Church I personally say:

Thank you for trusting me as I awkwardly got my start in ministry over thirty years ago. And thank you for your faithfulness. You taught me a great deal about life and ministry in our short time together. I continue to learn from you. I continue to take pride in our shared faithfulness.

I believe that your story is not over yet. In fact, it might just be the beginning of a whole new chapter for you and for all of us.

Well done. I am proud to be associated with you. I am proud to be part of your story.

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

The Top Ten

Dear Readers,

I am on vacation this week cycling, reading, seeing great Oregon sites and visiting family. I definitely did not have the energy to write a whole blog ahead of my vacation. Who has that kind of energy these days! Self care has become a number one priority.

However, I did think an easy way to provide something would be by listing the Top Ten blog posts over the past 30 months that I have been writing. You can click on each one to see the actual blog. It might be interesting to see what people are reading and what is says about what’s important to us.

NUMBER 10 (306 views), Oh my, oh my, oh my…

NUMBER 9 (345 views), The Ministry Gig Economy

NUMBER 8 (433 views), What if…?

NUMBER 7 (558 views), When it is Friggin’ HARD

NUMBER 6 (786 views), A Letter Reflecting on the Methodist Decision

NUMBER 5 (965 views), The Prophetic Fork in the Road

NUMBER 4 (1227 views), Signing Off…

NUMBER 3 (1117 views), The Parable of Yachats

NUMBER 2 (1364 views), Putting the Protest Back in Protestant

NUMBER 1 (14,318 views), Dear Mr. President

You will hear from me when I get back–hopefully rested, refreshed and relaxed.

I hope this list provides a way to reflect on who we are and what is important to us as we negotiate our way into a vibrant and faithful future.

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

Teasing Out the Future

There was a strange and surprising silence after my blog, White Theology, last week. I had a few readers who enthusiastically thanked me for the succinct analysis of our growing awareness of structural racism in the church. I had one reader, a professor of philosophy, who was ready to go deeper into the issues. But there was no one who took issue with the blog. That surprised me. Generally, a blog that challenges our assumptions this deeply gets a fairly equal response from those who applaud my writing and those who are troubled or take issue with my writing.

The silence reminded me that maybe it is time to remind people why I write this blog. I have titled the blog Teasing Out the Future. That word “teasing” is important to me. When I write I am not naming the future. I am not dictating how you should think about the future. I am not even stating my own position in the hopes that I can drag you, the reader, into my world.

No. I really am teasing out the future. Part of the experience of teasing is that one is never quite sure exactly how the object of teasing will take the teasing itself. So much of teasing is testing the limits of a relationship. Sometimes teasing deepens and enhances the relationship; sometimes it exposes small cracks and vulnerabilities in the relationship. But it always points the way toward where one can go and where one cannot go. Teasing almost always points and narrows the way forward.

I write this because the strange silence on my last blog told me that I may have hit a raw nerve and that some people weren’t comfortable letting me know I had exposed a vulnerable spot. It makes me nervous when I write something that I think could be controversial and all I hear are positive affirmations. I am not interested in just getting affirmation. I am interested in teasing out the future of the church one conversation at a time. And part of teasing is discovering where the path ahead of us is clear and where there are obstacles.

The greatest compliment you can give me when I write is to be engaged. I am less concerned with agreement than I am with engagement. Tell me when I am right on. Tell me when I am full of BS. Tell me when I am seem to be on the right track. Tell me when my thinking has gone off the rails. Tell me when my teasing out the future is deepening our relationship and tell me when I am hitting a raw nerve and better back off. Tell me anything that is on your mind. Just don’t be silent.

One of my colleagues and a former co-moderator of the PCUSA, the Rev. Jan Edmiston, has a blog like me. She titles it “A Church for Starving Artists” and then under the title she writes, “Jan Edmiston writes things here.” I really like that simple description. It is very much in the same spirit as my writing.

When I write I am not making official statements on behalf of the presbytery or the PCUSA. I am not dictating how we should think. Like Jan, my blog is a place where “I write things.” I am writing as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission, but my writing is a way of starting the conversation, inserting some energy into our presbytery, and teasing out the future.

It is my belief that the future of the presbytery and our congregations is not going to emerge from a group of thinkers sitting around a conference table preparing a visionary blueprint. Rather, it is my belief that the vision is going to emerge by throwing out hundreds of seeds (weekly blogs) and seeing what sprouts where. It will come into focus, but it will be an organic process of seeing what grows and what remains fallow.

In some ways this approach is very Jewish. The Israelites are people of Jacob, that is, “one who wrestles with God.” Part of Torah study in the Jewish tradition is to wrestle with the text, wrestle with each other and wrestle with God. We Protestants are sometimes burdened with our “orthodoxy,” that is, getting it right. That can sometimes hamper our willingness to question, to challenge, and to push back. It can hamper our ability to grow.

My Holy Breadcrumbs blog posts are not rooted in orthodoxy or in trying to dictate my vision of the presbytery on the rest of you. My Holy Breadcrumbs blog posts are invitations to wrestle. They are conversation starters. They are meant to be catalysts for an emerging vision.

I write under the title of Holy Breadcrumbs as a way of saying, “We are building the future one conversation at a time.”

I will admit that I enjoy affirmation as much as the next person. But affirmation is not what I am going for. I am going for engagement. I am inviting you all to wrestle with me and wrestle with God.

So, in that spirit…

Affirm. Challenge. Agree. Disagree.

Just don’t remain silent.

This blog is for you. My feelings can’t be hurt.

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