Experiments in Worship

Okay, I will admit it! I played hooky this last Sunday from church.

Here is the story. A month ago I drove up to the Twin Lakes trail head on the east side of Mount Hood for what I thought was going to be a glorious powdery snowshoe adventure. It had just rained hard in Portland the two days before which usually means a few inches of the new fluffy white stuff 4,000 feet above us. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was playing by different rules that week and apparently the clouds dropped all their moisture on this side of the mountain and then passed over the Cascades Range with ne’er a wisp of snow.

The snowshoeing that day was awful—dirty, trampled down, icy pavement. Not only did it lack the magical beauty I was yearning for, it was also treacherous. The ice was so thick that the only people who had an even minimally enjoyable experience were those who left the snowshoes behind in favor of spiked hiking boots.

Twin Lakes
Upper Twin Lake

Last week Portland got dumped on again—this time with a messy combination of snow, rain and ice. I was confident that Mother Nature was not going to play her dirty trick on me two times in a row. There just had to be a whole new blanket of virgin snow up there this time, I thought. I was not disappointed. At least two feet of snow had fallen in the prior 48 hours and I was treated to a magical experience of sacred beauty, contemplative solitude, and rest and refreshment (that is, if you can consider an 8.5 mile leg-screaming snowshoe expedition restful and refreshing. Yes, I know I am a nut!). It was mostly cloudy, but it was still bathed in divine light!

I had planned the following day to consider what church I might visit and how many chores and errands I could check off my list before the day’s end. I got up, moved groggily through my normal morning routine of yoga, devotional reading and prayer journaling. As I considered my next step and the 10 a.m. start time for most church services I noticed that the bright yellow sun was out.

Twin Lakes snow
On the Twin Lakes trail

I was still a little wrung out from the overly ambitious snowshoe adventure from the previous day, but the taste of beauty and the hum of God’s presence was still echoing in my ears from the day prior. I knew that if I missed this day there might not be another snow day like this again until next year.

I didn’t ponder too long. On this sabbath day my soul needed to be back up in the mountains following a frigid wintry creek up to one of Oregon’s favorite treasures—Tawanamas Falls. As much as I love the worship, music, fellowship, and prayers of my Presbyterian people it was not strong enough to pull me away from the mountain on this day.

A steep, but short two-mile trek got me to the spot where the trail abruptly ended at the cliff where Cold Springs Creek plummets from a seventy-foot cliff. I took a short video of what I experienced as I made my way to a spot just under the falls (watch the video before you read on). As I let the camera roll I said out loud:

“I didn’t get into church today,

but I am pretty sure that I am in God’s sanctuary.”

Tawanamas Falls
Tawanamas Falls in the winter

I want to let you know that I have been engaged in a somewhat haphazard research project that I am calling “Experiments in Worship.” Since I started this position I have balanced my Sundays partly with preaching and worshiping with our Cascades churches with a host of other experiences. I have worshiped in a Mennonite church, an emerging church, a Unitarian church, and a United Church of Christ church. But I have also taken off to the mountains on occasion, walked silently along the river, and even slept in after a particularly stress-filled week.

In addition, during the week I am showing up at open mic venues, attending concerts and lectures, singing in a peace-themed choir, and meeting with people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” and who are often deeply dedicated to compassionate ministries and services in the community.

There is a method to my madness. I have a deep hunch that much of the future of our Pacific Northwest churches is going emerge out the dialogue that takes place between our rich religious tradition and the experimental emerging spiritual expressions of our region. Too much focus on our tradition and we will die in place. Too much credence to that which is experimental and we will forever be unmoored.

Tawanamas snow
Lots of fresh powdery snow

Sunday I experimented with what it might mean to worship God on a spectacular and rare sunny day in the Cascades Range after a recent heavy snowfall. I was not disappointed. When I reached my destination, sat on my perch next to the icy waterfall and looked out I knew that I was sitting in a sanctuary of God’s own making. While I did not sing “For the Beauty of the Earth” or recite Psalm 148 at that moment I knew that I was experiencing the hymn and the psalm through the moist cold air, the constant hum of the Falls, the glistening white of the virgin snow, and the tiredness in my legs that told me I had earned this experience.

I made my way back to the trail head where my car was parked. I was full of the spirit. Joy was seeping from my bones. My body felt in rhythm with God’s body.

It was a nearly perfect day. It was as close to perfect as perfect can get. Almost perfect. Just about perfect.

The only thing missing were my people.

 

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

No changes necessary

“As we hang beneath the heavens; And we hover over hell; Our hearts become the instruments we learn to play so well.”

From Nexus, by Dan Fogelberg

the naked nowI thought of this verse as I was meditating on Richard Rohr’s book The Naked Now which is my current morning devotional book. He was talking about how we don’t really pray TO Christ. We pray THROUGH Christ, or better yet, he says, “Christ prays through us.” Then he added this lovely description, “We are always and forever the conduits, the instruments, the tuning forks, the receiver stations.”

Of course, I immediately thought of Fogelberg’s words about how our heart is the instrument that guides us as we float somewhere between heaven and hell, between that which is and that which is not yet, between life as it is and the kingdom as it will be. I wonder if our heart, more than our actions, is the bridge between the two.

When I was younger I was constantly trying to shape my life into something better, more mature, closer to the image of Christ. The assumption was that there was standard of perfection that existed somewhere outside of me and, if I could just see it, then I could discipline myself to become more perfected. Another way of saying it is that if I could name my personal pathologies I could also name the cure. If I could see what was wrong with me, then I could come up with a plan to make myself right.

Offering giftsI can’t tell exactly when that changed, but if my recollection is correct, I think it is when I began working with a spiritual director in my late 30’s. I remember being a little uncomfortable with it at first. My spiritual director refused to see my current behaviors, thoughts and feelings as a pathology. He treated everything that emerged from my heart–beautiful and ugly–as a gift. “It’s all good stuff,” he would say.

I spent three years with him and I fell in love with my own heart. I learned to love my fears, my anxieties, my passions, my desires, my hopes, and my despair. I learned to love my imperfections just as much as those areas where I had perfected life (okay, it was a very short list!). I learned to let Christ pray through my life and my craziness and my beauty and my ugliness and my every imperfection. I learned to let the honesty of my heart to become the instrument to which God had easiest access.

It was a wonderful revelation to discover that God loved this imperfect vessel just as much as God loved the image of perfection that I read in the Bible or carried in my head. “Just as I am without one plea,” became one of my favorite old timey hymns.

IMG_0094
Malin Community Church

If this only applied to our individual lives, I really should leave it up to our congregational pastors to do that work. I should not assume that I am responsible for the spiritual lives of all 14,000 Presbytery of the Cascades members. That is more of a burden than I want to bear. I do feel some sense of responsibility, but this level of spiritual nurture is not really my task. My task is to work with our 96 congregations and support our pastors as they work with our individual members.

But I have been wondering if my discovery twenty years ago where I learned to address my challenges not through the language of pathology, but through the language of the heart, has as much to teach our congregations as it does each of us individually. I wonder if my personal lesson about seeing all the contradictions and complexity of my life as gifts rather than deficits has a lesson for our congregations too.

  • What if all of our churches were already imperfectly perfect just as we are?
  • What if we don’t have to become anything different than what we already are?
  • What if we don’t have to become more Christ-like; we only have to let Christ work through our imperfect selves?
  • What if God was as interested in our lack of faith as the presence of our unshakeable faith?
  • What if our churches don’t need a cure from that which ails us, but only need to be loved for who we are today?
  • What if “Just as I am without one plea” was not just a lovely hymn, but a whole orientation toward life?

I look back over the last forty years of my adult life (yes, I am that old!) and marvel at how much a difference it has made to view my life not through the language of pathology, but through the belief that I am okay “just as I am” right now.

slothOne might worry that such radical self-acceptance would lead toward complacency, laziness and a laissez faire attitude. “Why work on self-improvement if I am already okay as I am,” we might ask. But I have noticed something—the more I believe that I am okay “just as I am” the more that God seems to set in motion the miracle of transformation.

I wonder if this is what Richard Rohr is referring to when he says, “We don’t pray to Christ” to make us better humans, “We allow Christ to pray through us.”

I am fine “just as I am.” We are all good “just as we are.”

Accept that and marvel at how much God transforms us into something else!

A Letter Reflecting on the Methodist Decision

(Author note:  Jules is my 30-year old child who came out as lesbian at age 19 and trans androgynous at age 28. They/their/them are preferred pronouns. I share this with their permission.)

Dear Jules,

This may seem like an odd letter to come from your dad at this time. I have a feeling that I am writing as much as a confessional for me as I am out of care for you. My motivations are not exactly clear, yet I feel that I need to share this with you.

I don’t know if you have been following the news of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church these last few days. In fact, as I say this I sort of smile, as I am aware that following church news is not something that you have done for a long time nor even feel compelled to do. But I do want to catch you up on it and then explain to you why I am writing.

gay coupleOur Methodist friends were wrestling this past weekend with the same issues we Presbyterians were wrestling with over four years ago in 2014. You know the issue I am talking about—the issue of the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the leadership of our churches and the support of same sex marriages. You might remember from our conversations that we Presbyterians voted to take our prohibitive language out of our Book of Order which made room for churches and their leaders to become more inclusive. Some churches took advantage of the new freedom, some decided to make no changes to their historic stances, and some were so troubled by the “relaxing of standards” that they left the denomination.

I have been in touch with Brandon over these last few weeks, you know my Methodist preacher friend, as he was watching and praying his way through this in his denomination. Of course, you know what he was hoping for—a decision to finally free up his churches to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. I know Brandon and many of his colleagues and friends were disappointed when the General Conference voted for what was called the Traditional Plan. The title itself doesn’t need much explanation except to say that things didn’t change much. If the LGBTQ+ community didn’t feel very welcome ten years ago they may feel even more unwelcome today.

Of course, a vote by an international body doesn’t mean every individual church feels this way. It just means that the majority felt that way and those who disagreed are now left with how to respond in a way that feels faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have many Methodist friends who are deeply hurt by this recent vote.

So why am I writing to you? I am writing to you because I feel some conflict between my role as your father and my role as a Presbytery leader who is responsible for the spiritual lives of 96 churches and 14,000 members. You know that if I was just acting as your father I would send a heartfelt, sad, and possibly angry letter to our Methodist friends and tell them that this is personal. This cuts at the very fabric of our family. But as a religious leader I have to be cognizant of the diversity of the people in the pews—some who are ready to march in protest against this decision as well as those who are breathing a sigh of relief and applaud this decision of the Methodist world communion.

I want to have something pastoral to say to our own denomination. I want to have something prophetic to say to the people of our presbytery. This is not a time to be silent, but I am torn, as you probably can guess.

You know that I have enough of a counselor’s heart to know that I believe that all growth starts with accepting people where they are, giving them information and then watching the spirit move their hearts and their lives at a pace that is true to how they are psychologically built. I learned long ago when I was a probation officer that I can’t make people change. I can only make sure they have all the information and tools they need, understand the consequences of their actions, and then walk with them as they make their own choices. In the end, if I did that I always felt good about my presence, even if I had hoped for a different outcome for them.

But it still pains me. It pains me that I am choosing to be patient with people while you are carrying pepper spray because of the recent attacks on queer people in Portland. Am I letting you down by not driving around to every church in our presbytery and insisting that enough is enough? Anything short of full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in our presbytery will not be acceptable, is not a good reflection of Jesus’ life and not okay with this father. Or would I be letting our presbytery down if I came out too strongly on one side or another and delighted some of our churches and offended others splitting our presbytery into two distinct camps?

I cried big ol’ dad tears today when you told me that you have now learned to stay away from certain areas friendly to queers because they have become targets for attacks by the Proud Boys. I cried because within 24 hours of each other the Methodist Church majority just voted to say, “We are not going to make it feel any safer for your kind,” and you just told me that “queer hangouts” are not a safe place for you given the recent movement to target your kind. Is there any safe place for you, my dear one?

As a father this just kills me. As a father I want to march out of my house right now and make this right. As a father I want to toss out any calls for me to be tolerant and understanding. As a father I don’t want to hear that change takes time.

So why I am writing this letter? I think it is a confessional. It is a way to work through my conflicting feelings. It is a way to ask your forgiveness if I don’t take enough decisive action and to ask for my presbytery’s forgiveness if I take too much decisive action.

Jules, I know that I can’t promise you that I will make the church more inclusive and that it will ever feel safe enough for you to open your beautiful heart to them, to reveal your full-sleeved tattoos, and to share communion with them in a way that you know you are just as much a part of the body of Christ as anyone.

But I can promise you this. I will continue to love the people of my presbytery. I will continue to accept them for who they are now because that is who I am and how I work. I will continue to walk with them and work with them at a pace that they can handle.

But I will also tell them that this isn’t just about church polity. This isn’t just about political correctness. This is personal. This is Jesus stuff.

“Take your time,” I will say, “but know that every hour that you wait breaks a father’s heart.”

Keep your pepper spray handy, my lovely.

Love,

Dad

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

Armed with Beauty

“We fight back with beauty.”

god and improvThat was the brief nugget of wisdom I gleaned from my final reading of God, Improv and the Art of Living. I have a practice for my morning devotional to pick some sort of book that speaks to me, is broken up into short one-page sections, and gives me a different lens at which to look at life. I have spent the last two months making my way through MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s delightful book on living our lives as if we were on the improv stage. I chose it, one, because improv scares the bejesus out of me and, two, because I had this sense that life in the church is probably going to marked by a persistent improvisational nature for years, maybe decades, to come.

It’s been a good read and a good ride for me, these few minutes every morning with MaryAnn. Once again, she spoke directly to my heart earlier this week as she recounted circumstances that seemed too great to overcome or to find any hopeful outcome. In speaking to a friend who was facing a seemingly hopeless situation about how she coped the friend offered this beautiful sage-like wisdom:

“We fight back with beauty.”

She said it to me. She said it anyone who is feeling hopeless about their lives. She said it to an America that wonders if we will ever recover the unified “one nation” that we recite in our pledge. She said it to all those who have to find meaning outside of history and time.

hard workI have noticed this shift in myself over recent years. I know that when I was younger I was able to commit to goals and missions and causes in the belief that if I just worked hard enough, creatively enough and long enough I could almost single-handedly make the world more just, kinder, fairer, more merciful and humble. I don’t know how much of it is aging or our current environment, but I no longer have that same confidence in my abilities. I am just not big enough, strong enough, and influential enough to mold the world into the image that I have in my head and heart (and that I believe is faithful).

It’s not that I have given up. In fact, far from it.

But I have noticed a shift and this beautiful piece of wisdom, “We fight back with beauty,” touches on what is happening for me. I used to think about enjoying life once I had slain all the monsters around me and made just all of the injustices of life. “Work first, enjoyment later,” was my motto. The only problem is that the work just never stopped!

guitar on streetNow I do what I can do with the hours that I have and then I concentrate on creating or enjoying beauty. I play my guitar (not very beautifully, but I try!). I ride my bike over a rugged snow-capped mountain or along an eye-pleasing country road laden with wildflowers. I cook a good meal blending flavors and colors and arranging the elements as artistically as my clunky left brain allows me to do. I watch superhuman athletes throw a ball from thirty feet into a two-foot net. I walk meditatively along the river.

In a word, I fight back at the hopelessness that sometimes overwhelms me with creating and enjoying beauty. I may not be able to eradicate all of the weeds of the world, but I can plant one flower right at my own feet. I may not be able to make our political environment less vitriolic and hateful, but I can fill the space right around me with kindness, with love, and with poetic beauty.

Personally, I wish I had more fight in me. I wish I believed that if I just marched loudly one more time, or preached just the right fire and brimstone sermon, or put all of my hopes in the next I’ll-be-your-savior candidate that my work would finally be done. I would have been successful in creating an as-close-to-the-kingdom-of-God reality as has ever been done. But, dang it, I just don’t believe it. And because I don’t believe it I just can’t muster up the energy to spend the rest of my life fighting with anger with anger, and vitriol with vitriol.

arm in armBut I haven’t given up. I have just changed my weapon. I have replaced anger with love. I have decided that it is better to spend my energy creating beauty than destroying ugliness. I have decided that the way to the future is not the eradication of evil, but the expansion of goodness.

Maybe it’s a sign of aging. Maybe it’s a sign of maturity. Maybe it’s pure resignation. But whatever it is, I have decided—if I have to fight I will fight back with beauty. It may not change the whole world, but it changes my world.

And that is just going to have to be good enough for now.

I’ll Go First!

“Screw it—I’ll go first!”

Shameless PromoLast week I spoke briefly about my attendance at Nadia Bolz-Weber’s appearance in Portland for her Shameless book tour. I could write a full month’s worth of blogposts about what her tattooed body, wicked tongue and brutally honest assessment of the church teaches us. And I am sure, over time, snippets of her talk and appearance will show up in my writing. But for today I wanted to highlight just one little moment that made me think, “Yes, this is how I want Cascades to be!”

At the end of her talk she was reflecting on how she found herself in this very vulnerable public role where she receives plenty of applause but also a great deal of sharp arrows aimed at her and downright nasty and mean criticism. Then she said, “I practice a style of leadership I like to call, ‘Screw it—I’ll go first!’”

I smiled as soon as she said it.

Book of OrderI hate to tell you this, but the church isn’t real fond of going first (we let Jesus do that!). That’s not what “decently and in order” people do. Oh yes, we are willing to take risks—that is, as soon as someone can show us where it has been done before or given us an analysis of all the costs and benefits of some seemingly brave proposal. But to be the first one to dive off an ocean-front cliff or test the winter ice or go to the moon is not really our thing.

Will we land in the water safely? Are there sharks below the surface? Has anyone ever done this before? What are the chances of success? Will we survive? What happens if we get hurt? Will there be someone to rescue us? What if we get it wrong? Does our Book or Order permit it?!

Granted, these are all really valid and important questions. If you are going to embark on something as risky as diving from a cliff or testing the winter ice or shooting for the moon you better have done your homework. You better have explored all the angles and options, risks and challenges. You better have taken your best stab at calculating the distances, the speed, the strength, and the odds. You better have not just woken up one morning with a wild impulse that is closer to a death wish than a barrier-breaking, inspiring adventure.

Cliff DivingBut here’s the deal. Someone still needs to go first. No matter how much research you do, no matter how many times you have practiced the lift off in your head, no matter how air tight your formulations and reformulations are, at some point someone still needs to go first. Someone still needs to jump from the cliff into the water. Someone still needs step out onto the ice and hope it holds. Someone still needs to strap themselves into that first rocket seat.

I love this time of year as the movie world gears up for the Academy Awards. Twice I forced myself to watch in awe at the movie Free Solo, the documentary account of Alex Honnold’s attempt to climb the 3,000 vertical feet of Yosemite’s El Capitan…without ropes. Did you hear me? Without ropes! I swear, I could not sit still in my seat. I kept worrying about the people behind me who must have been thinking, “Will that dude please sit still for a moment!”

Rock ClimbingIt had never been done before. Honnold spent a full year practicing, studying, researching, and training for this first-time-ever feat. On roped climbs he meticulously took notes, planned his route, and memorized difficult maneuvers reviewing them in his head hundreds of times like a slalom skier does before an Olympic run. But even with all of this preparation it still does nothing to remove the reality that, in the end, someone still needs to go first. Someone needs to prove that it can be done. Someone needs to break through the fear, the uncertainty, the disbelief, and the hesitancy that comes with taking first-time-ever risks.

I smiled when Nadia Bolz-Weber exclaimed, “I practice a style of leadership I like to call, ‘Screw it—I’ll go first!” Immediately, I thought, this is the reputation that I want Cascades to earn over the coming years.

Last week I wrote that one of our presbytery leaders reminded me that part of my job is to scour the national scene for “success stories” and share them with our presbytery so that we have models to follow and confidence that we are on the right track. I am glad to do that. In fact, I agree with my fellow Presbyterian friend, that this is vitally important. It is really tough to work in a vacuum and without models to emulate.

Snow TrailBut I want to suggest that we are living in a both/and moment. We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for someone else to figure out how to dive off a cliff first and show us how it is done. We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for someone else to test the winter ice. We don’t have the luxury of just waiting for others to figure out how to get to the moon before we are willing to take the risk.

There will be hundreds and even thousands of churches who will step boldly into the future as soon as someone else has cleared the path for them. And, I suspect, that our presbytery and our congregations will be among that group who won’t hesitate as soon as someone else has tested the ice ahead of us. We are a reasonably bold and risk-taking presbytery, in my estimation. But the fact remains that someone still has to go first. Someone has to take the risk that they might do a belly flop on the ocean waves, or fall into the frigid water below the ice, or come hurtling back to earth in a failed rocket.

The truth is that there is an unknown future ahead of us. The most comfortable thing to do is to wait to see if those who go first survive. The most faithful thing to do is just to go first. It has a certain Jesus sound to it.

I am so glad that Nadia said it first.

I am off the hook–at least for one more week!

Timing Is Everything

Timing is everything.

This was a blogpost that I actually backed into. I had a number of possible themes on which I thought I could write, but none of them seemed just right for the moment.

Shameless PromoFor instance, last Saturday I attended Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Shameless book tour appearance at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland. I was struck, in this age when we in Cascades are working so hard to look more like the community around us, that Nadia was able to bring together the whole spectrum of heterosexual, LGBTQ, and sexually evolving people of Portland and beyond. If you know Nadia’s reputation, you know her talk was peppered with language usually reserved for R-rated movies.  I left the event knowing that there was a blogpost in there somewhere. But the timing just didn’t seem right.

Then I thought of a comment I heard at a meeting recently when a presbytery leader reminded me that a big part of my job is to scour our religious denominations for “success” stories and share them with our presbytery. The truth is those success stories are starting to mount and show some consistent themes, but the timing just didn’t seem right to blog about.

case-study-coffeeThen yesterday I enjoyed an especially spicy chai tea latte at the downtown Case Study Coffeehouse. Next to me was a young man intently focused on some lengthy article on his MacBook. I happened to notice the title, “Sartre and the Death of God.” Being slightly brave knowing that I could be accused of eavesdropping I said, “I couldn’t help but notice the title of your article. I did some research on the “death of God” theology of Thomas Altizer many years ago.” The young man shared that he had met Altizer just before his death and explained that he was writing a dissertation on the “The Repressed Theism of Sartre and Hemingway.” A future blogpost titled, “Theology is Alive and Well at the Local Coffeeshop,” lit up in my brain like a flashing neon sign. But, again, the timing just didn’t seem right.

Kathryn Threadgill
Kathryn Threadgill of the Vital Congregations Initiative

Finally, with the news that Cascades had just been named as one of fourteen presbyteries across the nation for the Vital Congregations Initiative I started writing furiously as a way to both introduce the initiative and offer my initial thoughts. But I stopped. We have not yet formally invited leadership from the presbytery to help launch this and I suddenly realized that anything I say might pre-empt or contradict what is yet to come. Again, there will be at least one blog post on the Vital Congregations Initiative, but for this week, the timing just didn’t seem right.

My deadline was fast approaching and still I had no blogpost for the week—that is, until I realized that the theme was staring me right in the face. “You know, there is a message in this issue that ‘timing is everything,’” I said to myself. “Yes, timing is everything,” I repeated knowing that this was something that the presbytery could stand to hear at this moment.

I know the story well. Truth be told I probably would not have been a good candidate for this position five to ten years ago. I would not have been ready for you nor you ready for me. If anything I am in this position not because I was the best candidate, but because the timing was just right between what you needed and what I offered.

GriefI learned this story when I was counseling people and families through the experience of grief. What I learned was that it was not so much what I said as it was saying the right thing at the right time. I could promise people that there was life on the other side of loss, but if I said it too early it either had no effect on their healing or it even made them more depressed. I learned that timing was everything. I learned that there was a sweet spot where I could see the hope and possibility return to their faces and the joy to their eyes if I waited until the soil of their hearts was ready to receive it.

Timing is everything. The Presbytery of the Cascades has just received notice that we are one of fourteen presbyteries named in the Vital Congregations Initiative.

I hope and pray that this our right moment.

I hope and pray that this is the right time.

Timing is everything.

The gift has to be offered and we have to be ready to receive it.

Thank you, Mary Oliver

We lost a real saint this month. The Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83 on January 17 after living with lymphoma for the past three years.

I call her a saint not because she received the official designation from the Roman Catholic Church, but because she, along with the Sufi mystic, Rumi, seemed to be the most quoted poet among clergy types and those eternally curious Presbyterians that I tend to hang out with on a regular basis.

butterflyOliver had a way of writing that reminded us that the natural world was as spiritual as it was physical and that if you opened your eyes and observed you might discover that the line between humanity and divinity is very thin.

I feel that I might be taking a slight risk in calling Oliver a saint even though I say it with the full conviction of my being. Oliver very rarely mentioned God in her poems. In fact, when she did it was often a reference to mystery (“Some words will never leave God’s mouth, no matter how hard you listen”) or a reminder how much the experience of God is rooted in our experience of nature (“It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day”).

No, Oliver didn’t mention God all that much. But every poem seemed to be an invitation into the deep lived experience of God. She didn’t say God out loud, except rarely. Yet God always seemed to be peeking between the words of her poems and present in the pauses between verses.

ASUS 4 282
Week seven, preparing to cross the desert.

I remember when I embarked on a 4,000-mile cycling pilgrimage through the western states in 2011. Twice while riding, Christian friends sent me Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Journey” that provided just the right words (“One day you finally knew what you had to do…”) to guide me as I listened for God’s voice during a particularly vulnerable personal and vocational crossroads.

Curious that Christian friends first thought of a poem that was never sold as Christian writing to guide me and inspire me on my cycling adventure and spiritual pilgrimage.

I am calling Mary Oliver a saint today not because our tradition has taken steps to officially recognize her work or her contribution to thousands of well-crafted sermons. I am calling Mary Oliver a saint because so many of the people I know, both lay and clergy alike, have folded her writing into their spiritual disciplines, into their prayer lives and into their ever deepening and growing faith. I am calling her a saint because so many people I know long ago started treating her like a saint.

wild geese
A reference to her most famous poem, “Wild Geese”

I write this post today to simply say, “I think we need to pay attention to this.” Something is happening. I don’t know how many thousands of times preachers have quoted her poems (lacking all reference to God) as a way of gaining deeper insight into a Biblical narrative and into the heart of God.

Something is happening. People are wising up and they know when they can feel God even if G-O-D isn’t even mentioned on the printed page.

Something is happening. God is showing up in surprising places and in unorthodox ways.

There are saints who point a direct path to God. And then there a saints who point to the earth we stand on, the flower we gaze at, the bird we envy and the person we love. Mary Oliver was the latter kind of saint.

I say with full conviction that we lost a real saint this month. We lost one whose every poem pointed to God without ever mentioning the name.

We are eternally grateful for you, Mary Oliver.

Thank you.

“Desire Paths” and Presbytery Vision

When I preach I have occasionally used this little vignette that I have titled, “the parable of the CU campus.” I grew up in Colorado and the reference I had heard was to the university campus in Boulder. Since then I have heard the parable repeated numerous times giving credit to a number of university campuses, including our own OSU campus in Corvallis.

But whether the story originated in Colorado or Oregon the message is exactly the same:  sometimes vision follows the people, not the other way around.

college campusThe story goes that when these universities were putting in their landscaping they planted trees and bushes, they put in flower gardens, they erected sculptures and they completely sodded the campus. They did everything EXCEPT pour concrete for sidewalks.

The thinking was that there were hundreds of examples of campus sidewalk networks that were carefully planned and laid only to find that students were cutting new paths through the campus that were shorter and more convenient. The result was hundreds of American university campuses with a mixed mesh of planned concrete sidewalks and informal dirt paths carved by hundreds of pairs of feet wearing down the grass in unplanned areas.

Landscape architects at our Colorado and Oregon campuses looked at that and said, “Wait, why don’t we wait a year and see where the students naturally walk and then put in sidewalks.” In other words, in essence, they  said:

“Let’s not create the vision and try to force people into it. Let’s see where the vision emerges and build our structure around that.”

path overhead viewSuch paths, whether on university campuses or in parks or in the forest are called “desire paths.” They are paths that get formed from people’s desires rather than from a well-thought out landscaping plan.

I personally think that one has be careful about generalizing this story and claiming that vision always follows the desires of the people rather than the other way around. I say that because I have seen some situations “where there is no vision, the people perish”—a reference to Proverbs 29: 18.

But I do believe that there is just enough truth in this parable to take some lessons from it for our presbytery. I believe a both/and approach will probably serve us the best. That is, we need enough of a vision in order to get us moving, but not so much vision that we pour the concrete and cut off people’s actual desires and passions.

forest trailIn my role I feel like I am trying to do two things—tease the presbytery with a hopeful, God-oriented, compelling vision and then watch for the places where this vision takes root, where energy begins to emerge, where desire naturally shows up, and where people get itchy and impatient for something more.

I like this parable of the CU/OSU campuses. Not enough vision and people won’t get off their duffs and go anywhere at all. Too much vision and we will smother and strangle people’s natural desires.

Now that I think about it this sounds very much like a God thing. We need just enough vision to invite God to clear a path for the way forward. But not so much already-established vision that God has no room to play and create.

The moral of the parable of the CU/OSU campuses is this:

Don’t pour the concrete until you know where you are going!

From FOR to WITH…

squareone logoSquareOne Villages in partnership with First Presbyterian Church in Cottage Grove was just awarded a $500,000 Housing Improvement Grant by Lane County for the development of Cottage Village, a 13-unit tiny home project. I partly write this to celebrate their faithfulness and commitment. Three trinitarian cheers for them!

I also write this because their success seems largely tied to a growing trend in our mainline Christian churches:

Mission these days is not done for the community,

but in partnership with the community.

That first got imprinted on me about twelve years ago when I was serving Eastminster Church in Northeast Portland. I remember distinctly the first couple of years as the church made attempts to revitalize their ministry by a number of initiatives that were FOR the community. The thought seemed to be “If we provide the right program FOR the community, people will come.” Remember the “if you build, it they will come” mantra that guided many of our assumptions around church growth?

I also remember very distinctly the moment when Eastminster made the shift from for-thinking to with-thinking. Blessed with four empty classrooms and an unused one-acre lot they offered to partner WITH the community in putting these spaces to use in a way that would best serve the needs of the neighborhood.

eastminster gardenAfter three years of unsuccessful attempts to provide meaningful ministries FOR the community, the switch to with thinking produced a 60-bed family homeless shelter during the coldest six months of the year and the ¾-acre Eastminster Community Garden mostly used by newly arrived immigrants from Asia and Africa. It was all done in partnership and only took eighteen months. Eastminster had the room, but the city had the funds, and various non-profits had the volunteer and staffing capacities.

This is a very simple and blogpost. If you are a small congregation with limited resources please don’t feel like you have do it all on your own. Don’t get caught in the trap that God expects you to be the sole source of providing ministry FOR the community.

Just look at this list of partners that Cottage Grove Presbyterian Church and SquareOne Villages is working with. Look at the diversity. Notice how much they represent your community and your neighbors. Discover how much our religious mission also resonates with the mission of the people around us.

Study this list and give thanks for the many people, agencies and groups who are willing and delighted to partner with us in ministry.

  • Aprovecho Sustainability Education Center
  • Arbor South Architecture
  • Banner Bank
  • Blackberry Pie Society
  • Beds for Freezing Nights
  • Be Your Best
  • Chapman Family
  • Coast Fork Watershed Council
  • Cottage Grove City Council
  • Cottage Grove Area Habitat for Humanity
  • Edwards Mother Earth Foundation ($100,000)
  • First Presbyterian Church
  • Ford Family Foundation
  • Geomax Engineering
  • King Estates Winery
  • Meyer Memorial Trust ($200,000)
  • Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church
  • Parent Partnership
  • Presbyterian Women ($100,000)
  • Resilience Permaculture Design
  • Rowell Brokaw Architects
  • South Lane Mental Health
  • Studio-E Architecture
  • Sustainable Cottage Grove
  • Team Cottage Grove
  • The Healing Matrix
  • Trinity Women in Ministry

​You don’t have to do it alone.

The community is waiting to partner with us.

All we need to do is dream and ask.

Thank you, Cottage Grove, for your faithful witness.

Christianity–Reformed Style

I have been around Presbyterian circles long enough to know that many of our congregations pride themselves on an open-ended search for truth and nurturing a deep curiosity about life. When it comes to talking about faith one is more likely to hear the word mystery than certainty from a Presbyterian pulpit.

racismI have also been around long enough to know that the above-mentioned is not the perception of most people in the community. It doesn’t matter what denomination you hail from or even what religious tradition you pledge allegiance to. A persistent and prevalent perception in the community is that if you are part of a religious organization you are most likely rigid, intolerant, possibly racist, sexist and most likely homophobic.

I don’t know if you are like me, but I am careful about how quickly I reveal that I am a Christian, a Presbyterian or a church professional when meeting strangers. I always hope that I have a few minutes for people to get to know me first so that when they finally discover that I am a church person their first reaction is, “Really, but you seem so open and nice?” Then I have a chance to say that not all Christians are like you think.

Iblock party am now old enough to know that it wasn’t always this way. I remember growing up nearly a half century ago and feeling no embarrassment about going to church or stating which church I attended. The funny thing is I am not sure how much we church people have changed over that time. In fact my hunch is most of us have actually become more open, increasingly tolerant and less inclined to think in absolutist terms than we were decades ago.

But something has changed. The dominant religious voices who get the airtime are often the most strident, the least compassionate, and the most judgmental of people who think and look differently. If community-based Christianity was the norm in people’s minds fifty years ago now it is judgment-based Christianity.

Quite honestly, I grieve that I can’t say that I am a Christian without also having to immediately describe what kind of a Christian I am. I could have never imagined a day when my spiritual values were closer to that of a humanitarian atheist than to Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian.

perceptionBut I write this because, despite all the times I have said that the church must change, I am convinced that we in the Reformed tradition have more of a perception problem than a substance problem.

The people of our communities are looking for safe places where their questions are heard, where their open and curious search for truth is affirmed, and where diversity of thought and experience is welcomed. The cool thing is that already describes the vast majority of our churches.

Yes, we do need to change. Some of what we do is just plain old and tired. Our structure often gets in the way of good ministry rather than supporting good ministry. And we still use “that’s the way we have always done it” way too often.

But at our core we are not the perception that many in the community have of us. Rather than being rigid and intolerant we are theologically flexible and open people. Rather than beating people over the head with the gospel of judgment we prefer to bless people with the spirit of grace. Rather than being absolutely certain about who God is we are people who trust in the Divine mystery.

At our core and in our substance we are just what the community is searching for—openness, tolerance, love, grace and acceptance in the name of a God whose character is exactly that. This is the Reformed way.

Maybe we don’t have to change as much as we sometimes think we do.

Maybe we just have to do a better job of telling our story!