Celebrating Our Church Renovation

Last Sunday afternoon was a big milestone in the life of our congregation as we gathered along with friends and neighbors to give thanks, to celebrate, and to dedicate ourselves and our renovated church building to serve God and our community. Several years ago we began a long-range planning process. We considered who we are as a people and the property we are stewards of here in the City of Fairfax. We have a 3 ½ acre property with a two acre woods, a stream running through it, and a somewhat cranky building with solid bones.

One of our first efforts was to reshape our church’s vision and we came up with: (1) being a small, diverse church where everyone is welcome, (2) being a peace church rooted in the life and vision of Jesus, (3) embodying a Jesus-centered social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment, and (4) ) being a spiritual home for people no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.

As we were working on this somebody come up with the bright idea of changing our name to express this vision. By that time we had built a nature trail through our woods and by Daniels Run, the stream running through our property. It felt natural to take Daniels Run, as part of our name. And the word “peace” identifies us as a peace church in the Anabaptist peace-church tradition.

As part of our long-range planning we identified affordable housing as a crucial social need in our area and we explored building affordable housing on our property. That remains a future goal but we soon realized that it will not happen quickly so we began to explore how our present building could be more welcoming, handicap accessible, and usable for us and our community.

The renovation took a year longer than expected (trying our patience) but we’re so pleased with the transformation. I still need to pinch myself occasionally to remind myself that I’m not dreaming when I walk into our renovated building. I’m most grateful for the enthusiasm and teamwork of our congregation, as expressed in the new church motto we came up with collaboratively, “Living Love, Growing Justice, and Welcoming Everyone.”

Advertisements

Being Poor in Spirit

Han Christian Anderson’s familiar old children’s story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is remarkably contemporary. Two swindlers hoodwinked the vain emperor into buying clothes that were purportedly invisible to people who were unfit for their office or stupid. His trusted old minister and then the emperor himself fell for the ruse for fear of being exposed as unfit for their office.

The emperor then paraded through his capital city stark naked in what he thought were his fine new clothes. None of the people lining the streets dared believe their eyes for fear of being exposed to their neighbors as being stupid. They foolishly praised the invisible fabric with its magnificent design and brilliant colors. Then a child whispered to its mother, “The emperor is naked.” Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing and the buzz grew louder and louder. The emperor at last realized the truth but still preferred to believe that his people were stupid.

All the political turmoil during the past two weeks—including the petty argument about how many people attended the presidential inauguration and the banning of refugees and people from various Muslim countries—reveals an emperor overly concerned about being properly admired and given to fear mongering and conspiracy theories. Heaven help us all!

Yet, focusing exclusively on this national drama is too easy. It diverts our attention from this same predilection in ourselves and in our churches. We’re part of the problem. We’ve all seen the hubris and thin egos of pastors, Christian public speakers, and leaders of faith-based organizations. We tell ourselves that our group is “the greatest” and all “others” are somehow deficient. Such religious divisions infect and reinforce the political divides in our world.

We have Mainline churches, Evangelical churches, black churches, hipster churches, Korean churches, Pentecostal churches, and Anabaptist churches—but we rarely engage in meaningful conversations outside of our church groups. Christena Cleveland writes, “if we interact with other groups at all, we usually do so at a distance and with at least a hint of suspicion” (Disunity in Christ, 26).

Jesus’ proclamation that the “poor in spirit” are blessed (Matthew 5: 3) is an antidote.  In Luke’s Gospel Jesus more unequivocally pronounces “blessed are you who are poor” and then contrasts it with “but woe to you who are rich” (6: 20-24).  Why does Matthew instead say “poor in spirit?” Perhaps his life experience has convinced him that a stark contrast between the pious poor and the arrogant rich is an oversimplification.

Still, biblical scholar Douglas Hare writes, “At the heart of the poverty-piety equation lies a profound insight. The proud self-reliance that is fed by prosperity all too easily prompts forgetfulness of our dependence upon God. The poor, to whom less is given, are more likely to remain aware of the givenness of life than are the well-to-do who so naturally come to regard their blessings as deserved” (Matthew, Interpretation, 36).

Wealth and power feed our sense of self-importance, which in turn keeps us from valuing the experience and insight of others. Thinking that we are important and wise, we instead become arrogant and incompetent. We become naked little emperors parading down the street in our birthday suits.

 

 

 

The Caveat to Welcoming Everyone

We recently had our church discernment process to choose a motto to put beneath our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” It came down to choosing between “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone” or just “Living Love, Growing Justice.” Some of us thought that our new name implies that we’re welcoming and we didn’t need to explicitly say it in the motto. Others thought it’s important to say it anyway.

I was initially on the side of not needing to explicitly say it but noticed that many of the newer people in our church voted for “welcoming everyone.” You were telling us something and I changed my mind. We should never take our ability to welcome everyone for granted. So, what does welcoming everyone look like?

We can learn a few things from Jesus’ unsolicited advice on humility and hospitality when he was a guest at the house of a prominent religious leader (Luke 14: 1-14). People who wanted to be important were honored to be invited and jumped at the opportunity to smooze, to see and be seen. Jesus pushes their buttons with his remarks about the social dynamics of this dinner party.

Such dinner parties happen all the time here in the DC area, especially during elections. People paid $50,000 a plate to attend a recent political fundraising dinner. I wonder who made the seating arrangements and how they decided on where people sat? How much jockeying was there to be recognized or to get a strategic seat beside the more important people. William Lamar IV says that Jesus’ alternative of humility cuts against the grain of our culture:

This is a profoundly un-American impulse. This nation is not humble. Americans assume that American political, economic, and foreign policy prescriptions will fix a world much older and often much wiser. Many American churches—which often seem more American than Christian—lack humility as well. Chauvinism animated their theological forebears to take the faith of the wrongfully convicted Executed One and use it as a tool for plunder. A similar chauvinism is evident in their own dog-whistling around Muslims, immigrants, sexual minorities, and black and brown people, God knows America and many of her churches need Jesus’s unsolicited advice (The Christian Century, Aug., 17, 2016: 20).

Accordingly, there’s a caveat in the fine-print to our welcome motto, “You are invited to join us in following Jesus.” It takes lots of grace and humility but we’re determined to help each other grow in things like loving the least, living in peace with all people, caring for creation, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation, studying the Scriptures, and caring for our bodies. We’re not an anonymous crowd with little regard for each other.  Instead, we’re a body that lives.

We give more than lip service to being Christian and don’t assume that the words American and Christian fit together seamlessly. So, if you resist confronting those places in your life that are more American than Christian, you probably won’t feel included in our church. And that’s okay. Still, my prayer is that you can see this more as an invitation than as an exclusion. It’s an invitation to join us in a faith journey. It’s a journey that invites and walks in solidarity with the poor and disabled. Together we look forward to being part of that great dinner party in God’s new world coming.

Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone

Our congregation has recently been working together to come up with a motto that expresses the song of our hearts that we’ll include with our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church.” Several things became apparent.  We want to be a welcoming fellowship epitomized by our love; we seek to be a diverse church that’s growing in equality and justice.  And all of this begins in the shared life of our fellowship as followers of Jesus but we seek to extend such winsome love and justice to our neighbors and our world in ways that are healing and empowering.

Love and justice walk hand in hand. Together, they’re what peace looks like. The prophet Isaiah envisioned Israel (God’s people) as a choice vineyard lovingly nurtured by our Creator. God had expected Israel to be a loving community where justice prevailed but instead saw bloodshed and heard a cry (Isaiah 5: 1-7). We imagine violent, cutthroat elites oppressing poor people and fighting among themselves to gain power. I’ve been around the block enough times, however, to realize that these were most likely pious people who had convinced themselves they were doing the right thing.

We’re all involved in social structures that oppress and ignore the neediest. Sure, poor people often contribute to their own problems but when we learn to know them we discover that there’s always a backstory.  Poor kids get caught in violent neighborhoods, racial prejudice, an abusive foster-care system, poor schools, and a skewed criminal justice system. I imagine God looking at our country and saying, “I expected justice but saw bloodshed and heard a cry.”

Jesus chided his listeners and called them hypocrites because they were blind to such things. He told them that they were good at interpreting signs for the weather but incapable of reading the signs of the times (Luke 12: 54-56). How do we interpret the signs of the times in our world? They are those places overcome by spiritual brokenness and social injustice. We will also want to discern where and how the reign of God is penetrating our world, bringing healing, and social and spiritual transformation.

What does that look like? I was recently talking with a friend who is the pastor of another emerging church here in Fairfax. We share the goal of forming diverse, multi-cultural congregations. We also share the free-church conviction that dynamic expressions of God’s kingdom always emerge on the margins. Giving up our compulsion to be in charge is very liberating. It gives us the freedom to be different in ways that matter.

That’s what makes experimenting with different mottos for our church so much fun. I especially like the sentence one of our church members came up with, “A loving, multicultural congregation with a passion for peace and justice, following the path of Jesus Christ.” We eventually agreed on a shortened version that we will put on church sign by the road. Under our new name “Daniels Run Peace Church” will be the motto “Living Love, Growing Justice, Welcoming Everyone.”

 

Building an Inclusive Church

The raw fear can be overwhelming. Last week we saw images of a big truck ramming through the crowds in Nice as people ran for their lives. There have been so many mass shootings in our own country creating a fear of others. Then there are all those video clips of black men being killed by policemen and now of police being targeted by lone shooters.

Matthew Boulton, the president of Christian Theological Seminary, expresses our angst, “As the sound of gunfire continues to echo in our neighborhoods — from Baton Rouge to St. Paul, Dallas to Charleston, Newtown to Orlando — so many of us are angry, exhausted, heartbroken, devastated, lost. Violence like this strikes at the heart of who we are, and threatens again and again to divide us, segregate us, polarize us, turn us against our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, ourselves.”

We need to confess that our country was born in violence as we destroyed native American populations, enslaved Africans to work our fields, and fought a revolutionary war against Great Britain. Later there was racial and religious violence against Jews, Catholics, and Asian immigrants. Still, we have been inspired and energized by greater ideals that are enshrined in our constitution: equality under the law, justice for all, religious freedom, a free press, and the right of assembly.

We have always lived with the tension between these two realities. Racism and the oppression of minorities are the original sins of our country. At the same time, many of our ancestors migrated here because they were fleeing persecution and poverty in the lands they came from. They brought with them the hope of religious freedom, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Recent events have brought our racial and economic divides to the surface. They emerged at a recent Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting as they deliberated about creating an outside civilian review panel for police abuse investigations. Some activists attended to meeting to bring attention to the recent report showing that more than 40 percent of use-of-force cases in Fairfax County last year involved African Americans, who account for about 8 percent of Fairfax’s population.

A related incident people have been protesting is the death of Natasha, a mentally ill black woman who died in detention. She was in shackles and handcuffs and was still Tasered four times with a stun gun while surrounded by six deputies. An internal investigation concluded that they had followed protocol and no charges were filed.

We dare not focus our blame exclusively on the police. Many serve with integrity and devote their lives to keeping our community safe. I commend progressive policing initiatives here in Fairfax such as instituting restorative justice processes and a Diversion First program where mentally ill people who create a disturbance are taken to a medical facility rather than to the county jail. Prejudice permeates our society and none are immune. Too often our churches participate in this racism. It has often been noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America.

That’s why I’m so thankful for the diversity we have in our small church. We’re learning how to worship and serve together across our differences including ethnic and racial divides. My dream is that we will slowly, laboriously keep building an inclusive church one brick at a time here in the City of Fairfax. It can be hard work. It’s much easier to tear down than to build up. But we have a good start and my prayer is that by God’s grace we will grow more and more into the kind of faith fellowship that crosses the divides in our community.

Being a Peace Church

We’re in the process of changing the name of our church from “Northern Virginia Mennonite Church” to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” What does being a peace church look like? Our Mennonite tradition has a long heritage of saying no to war because we can’t reconcile Jesus’ command to love our enemies with killing them. Along with the Quakers, the Church of the Brethren, and many other conscientious objectors we insist that war is never the answer. A personal example is that I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and served our country as an orderly in a mental hospital.

Refusing to go to war is a powerful witness to God’s love but it’s not enough. We need to also actively promote peace in our community. One way in which our church does that is through supporting the Fairfax County Student Peace Awards program, which awards high school seniors selected by their school for their peace and justice initiatives. We also support the organization Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. Each year we place a “Memorial to the Lost” on our church lawn remembering all those killed by gun violence in the metro DC area.

There are many ways to be a peace church. For instance, our church garden, caring for Daniels Run, and restoring our woods are all kinds of peace efforts. One of the biggest challenges to being a people of peace is to know how to respond when we have personally been harmed. Being in that gay nightclub in Orlando or loving one of those who was killed would mean having to live with a nightmare for the rest of your life.

This mass shooting happened almost one year after Dylan Roof, a troubled young man filled with white supremacist ideology, killed nine people during a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Among those killed was their beloved pastor Clementa Pinckney. Shortly after this horrific tragedy some church members and relatives of those murdered surprised lots of people when they said that it was their Christian duty to forgive Dylan.

Jeffery Brown from PBS recently interviewed pastor Betty Deas, the new pastor of Mother Emanuel. Betty is such a warm person with a wonderful smile. Jeffery asked her how the congregation was doing and she responded that they are slowly progressing but still grieving. She said it’s so good when people can start laughing again.

Jeffery then asked her about those expressions of forgiveness. Her response is a wonderful example of the gospel in action. She told Jeffery that forgiveness is more than an emotion, it’s a choice. We choose to not respond in kind or to try to get even. Sure, our emotions are still raw and it’s okay to be angry and to want to withdraw for a while. If she ever has the opportunity to meet Dylan Roof she will tell him that Jesus loves him and that there is forgiveness and life beyond the horrible thing he did.

A woman recently came to talk with her about what happened. The woman seemed withdrawn and Betty reached out to hug her. The woman responded, “Before you hug me, I need to tell you that I’m Dylan Roof’s aunt.” Betty, responded, “You still need a hug don’t you?” They hugged and then they talked.

Betty said that Charleston still has a long way to go in race relations but they have already come so far. She talked about the wonderful way in which all kinds of people responded to the shooting with an outpouring of sympathy and love. It brought the whole community together across racial divides.

That’s the power of love and forgiveness—a power much stronger than fear and hate. This is our identity. It’s who we are as followers of Jesus who obey his command to love our enemies. And that’s what a peace church looks like.

Finding Hope in a Briar Patch of Troubles

IMAG0265.jpg

A thicket of greenbriar and multiflora rose in our church woods

Proverbs chapter eight is a delightful ode to creation. It transports us back to the very beginning in the mists of time where Wisdom is personified as a woman telling us the story. She and God delight in each other as they toil together to create everything that exists.  Wisdom says she “was rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

The world as we know it today is broken and painted with darker colors. The Apostle Paul characterizes it as the human race and all of creation groaning together in labor pains as we wait for our redemption and for a new world to be born. Old Testament professor Safwat Marzouk aptly describes this groaning:

Communities around the world are suffering climate change, civil war, terrorism, forced migration, and much more. Churches are weary of polarization and division, and many now lack the ability or desire to have fellowship with people who are different from them. Individuals struggles with cancer and migraines and aching bones, or walk with loved ones who do (The Christian Century, May 11, 2016: 22).

The American Dream insist that our standard of living should keep getting better for each generation. We believe this is our American birthright and try to remain oblivious to all the painful realities around us. Others of us have lost hope in a better future as we see our former standard of living slipping away. As a consequence, there has been an alarming increase in alcoholism, drug dependency, obesity, and suicide in working class communities.

The past several decades have been especially difficult for churches. Denominational institutions have had to continually cut staff and programs as their budgets slowly dried up. Church membership has been declining for decades but then more rapidly since the beginning of this century. We remain deeply divided over things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and racial and cultural differences.

Our denomination is experiencing a major schism as various conferences and congregations decide to leave because of such differences. A recent church news article breaks my heart. Several conferences recently voted to leave Mennonite Church USA. This has created a dilemma for many congregations because they now need to make a painful choice between their conference and their denominational affiliation. This ongoing struggle is a constant drip, drip, drip that erodes our faith and hope.

It gets so discouraging! I try to ignore such struggles and put my passion and energy into the life and mission of our church here in Northern Virginia. There’s wisdom in not getting wrapped up in larger church conflicts to the detriment of the local church. Still, like it or not, denominational matters affect us and we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and ignore them.

The challenge is to have our lives formed by a hope that’s grounded in the creative and redeeming work of God. When we do that we’re capable of confronting these kinds of difficulties with grace. Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us some handles on how to do that. He says that we have been made righteous through Christ’s faithfulness combined with our faith. This confidence and faith gives us peace with God. We have an audacious hope.

We boast of this hope. It’s not something to keep under wraps or to be modest about. Then Paul takes an unexpected turn when he exclaims, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5: 3-4). The path to a new humanity winds its way through a briar patch of troubles.

I find it hard to gracefully accept troubles. They make me despondent and ashamed of myself and my church. A voice inside me laments that we could do so much better. We certainly could! What I fail to recognize is how we get there. We don’t insist on black and white answers and we don’t just throw up our hands and walk away.

We, instead, persevere and develop character in the process. And as we develop character our faith and hope increase. I love the way Paul concludes, “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 5).