Building Community

Last week a crew of eleven friends and members of my former Shalom congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia came to help us with the initial deconstruction of the part of our church building where we will create our new worship space. I can hardly express my gratitude for their labor of love. They were the face of Christ here in Fairfax.

We’re not only creating a new worship space, we’re creating community in many different ways. Members of our congregation provided food and lodging for our volunteers. Then a whole other group of local people from Fairfax, including an emerging congregation that is sharing space in our building, came to clean the building. Lots of relationships were built as we worked and ate together.

Our church property has been both a blessing and an albatross for us. It’s strategically located in the center of the City of Fairfax, a major suburb of Washington DC, and includes a two acre woods with a small stream called Daniels Run flowing through it. We have been able to rent space in our building to several immigrant Korean, Chinese, and Hispanic congregations. The building is solidly built but is an albatross in the sense that it feels dated and worn and the worship space is on the third floor.

Where we meet can make a huge difference in our worship and in our ability to create a faith community. Architecture matters! Our renovation will move our worship space to the ground floor and make it handicap accessible. It will better serve our congregation as well as all the other congregations that share our space. Our dream is that it will also create opportunities for yet unseen ministries in our community.

Scrambling Our Categories of Religiousity

There’s an old saying that “birds of a feather flock together.” It’s common for human communities to shun people who are different from us or who disregard what we consider to be accepted standards of behavior. One of the reasons why many churches don’t grow is because we’ve become too comfortable with a fellowship of like-minded and like-mannered people.

A common criticism is that Christians are judgmental. Such judgmental attitudes among religious people have probably been with us ever since humans have gathered to worship and form religious communities. Jesus completely broke with such religious prejudices when he hung out with and even partied with all the wrong kinds of people. The religious leaders complained that he ate with tax-collectors and sinners and accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19).

Think of all the different ways Jesus broke the mold of who they thought self-respecting, righteous people are and what they should act like. Jesus wasn’t only doing his religious duty by “ministering” to such people, he was their friend and obviously enjoyed being with them. Another matter is that these people weren’t necessarily folks who needed help. Instead, people like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene didn’t fit into the conventional sensibilities of those who considered themselves to be religious.

What do we make of Jesus’ response to those who criticized him of having too much fun hanging out with such people? Who is sick, who needs a physician, who are the righteous, and who are the sinners? Jesus scrambled all these categories. And to make sure they got it, he quoted the Prophet Hosea, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice” (6:6).

How are the categories of religiosity constructed in our churches and in our community? In other words, who wouldn’t receive a warm welcome in our church? In what ways is Jesus scrambling those categories for us?

Reinventing Halloween and All Saints Day

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My grandson dressed up as a mad scientist for Halloween

Children look forward to dressing up in costumes and joining their friends to go from house to house, saying trick-or treat, and collecting candy on Halloween. Its lots of fun chaperoned by responsible adults. It’s a way to build our courage by poking fun at scary things rather than being afraid or even controlled by them. That’s good! Furthermore, we have a tendency to take ourselves too seriously. Halloween reminds us to lighten up a bit.

Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows Eve” or “holy evening” which has its roots in the ancient Christian three-day observance of “All-hallow-tide” the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.

The trick-or-treat part appears to be rooted in a folk belief that some departed spirits like to play harmless pranks on Halloween. Carving pumpkins, giving candied apples, and other treats also appears to be related to the tradition of not eating meat during the three-day observance of “All-hallow-tide.” All Saints Day celebrations follow Halloween in many parts of the world but unfortunately only Halloween gets much attention in our country.

All Saints Day is a major holiday in the Philippines where I and my family once lived. People bring lots of candles, food, and music to their family burial plots in the cemeteries. Prayers and blessings are said. People camp out in the cemetery through the night and spend the whole next day visiting with relatives and neighbors. They bring photos of loved ones who have died and tell lots of stories in memory of them. There’s a sense that their dead ancestors’ spirits are there with them. It’s a big multi-generational party.

How can we revive this in our culture? Dressing up in costumes and going trick-or-treating pales in comparison. Some churches organize a “Saint Fest” party for the whole family on Halloween. Wouldn’t it be great if we’d follow this with a worship service and intergenerational fellowship meal our church cemeteries on All Saints Day? We could remember our loved ones who passed away. We could tell stories about the struggles, victories, and defeats of past generations in our families and our churches. We are who we are because of who they were—saints and sinners—ordinary people with strengths and weaknesses who passed their faith down to us.

Worship as the Work of the People

In her book Traveling Mercies, Ann Lamott describes being slowly drawn into the fellowship of a small church during a troubled time in her life. It was the singing and the warm community that drew her in. She writes, “I couldn’t believe how run-down [the church] was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and over shined, and plastic stained-glass windows.  But it has a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth.”

I have had a similar experience with our church. For a fleeting moment I considered turning around and leaving when my wife and I first walked through the doors into our depressing basement entryway that felt like we were walking back into the 1960s. I couldn’t do that because I’d accepted an invitation to preach. So we climbed two flights of stairs to the sanctuary where we encountered a very friendly and surprisingly diverse group of people who drew us in. I began to think that being the pastor of our small church here in the City of Fairfax could be a fun challenge—and it has been.

I find myself learning and growing with our church. Our worship is the heart and soul of our congregation. It forms us as a caring, spiritual community. It’s here that we experience God alive in our midst as God our creator, Jesus our teacher and redeemer, and the Spirit who empowers us. David Ray, the author of Wonderful Worship in Small Churches, says that worship is the work of the people and the fruit of their gifts.  Likewise, the author of 1 Peter says that each of us has received a gift to use in serving each other (4:10). David Ray writes:

  • Authentic Christian worship is the work of all the people—short and simple.
  • Authentic Christian worship is a workshop in which all the people are encouraged and supported in naming their spiritual gifts and developing them as gifts for God and God’s people, as well as their own sense of self-fulfillment.
  • Authentic Christian worship provides the precious opportunity in which those now employed in the community know deep in their heart that they are not useless and unusable. . . At its deepest core, Christian worship is both a gift to God as well as to the people themselves.

Such worship is like a structured but informal folk dance in which all participate rather than a concert put on by select performers for an audience.

Our Nature Trail by Daniels Run

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An Eagle Scout troop recently built a picnic area by our church garden that overlooks Daniels Run. Then they created a trail through the woods going down along the stream. They worked hard all day to clear invasive plants and brush, build steps out of dead logs, and haul out trash that had been dumped along the stream bank years ago. Finally, they laid down landscape cloth and covered it with mulch to create the picnic area and the walking trail.

People from our church prepared a lunch and helped with the project. The City of Fairfax donated the mulch and hauled away the brush and trash. We all willingly contributed to the project because of our public spirit and our love for our community. We want our city to be walkable and to have plenty of green space that enhances our environment. In the process we learned to know each other and built stronger community relations.

This is part of an ongoing project. During work breaks we discussed the possibility of creating a rain garden to capture rainwater from the street and our church parking lot. We want to extend the nature trail across the stream to connect with an existing trail in our two-acre woods on the other side of the stream. An even bigger dream is to someday create affordable housing (perhaps for people with disabilities) in the area where our church building now stands.

This is related to the song of our heart as a congregation. One stanza of our song is to “embody a faith-based, compassion and social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment.” This vision is still unfolding but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s integrally tied to our location by Daniels Run, that little stream flowing through our church property, which eventually finds its way to the Chesapeake Bay and finally the wide Atlantic Ocean beyond.

There’s spiritual wisdom in our natural environment that we can learn from in our fast-paced Metro DC area. I think of a verse in Wendell Berry’s poem, The Want of Peace:

I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire.
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.

My hope is that our garden, picnic area, and nature trail by Daniels Run can help us reconnect with the spiritual wisdom found in nature. Another verse in one of Wendell Berry’s poems indicates how our nature trail by Daniels Run can help us find that peace and grace:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
Around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Creating a Spiritual Home

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Noise and motion, busyness, activity and pressure! There’s energy in urban centers like metro DC and its part of what attracts me to our city. Yet it can be brutal when it runs amok and we assume that bigger is always better and we divide the world between winners and losers. Donald Trump has personified this in the news cycle in the past several weeks. Notice how the media is drawn to this circus like moths to a flame.

There can be a great gulf between our outer life of work, roles, and responsibility and our inner life enriched by God’s presence. Our insecurities turn our fast-paced, urban world cruel and ugly. For some, this is masked as drive and ambition; others lose confidence, despair, and even become suicidal. Growing in spiritual wisdom and maturity necessarily involves recognizing and coming to terms with this part of our lives. It also entails finding a space where deep touches deep and we connect with the spirit of life within.

We need to make space for God in our lives. This will be different for each of us. Gardening is one way that I get in touch with nature, with myself, and with what I sense as the Spirit of God alive in all creation. It’s hard to explain. It’s the fruitfulness of the natural world, working my muscles, feeling the sweat on my brow, and biting into a fresh tomato—this connects me with an unfathomable power much greater than myself.

I should quickly add that I can easily fret and become anxious, I can be self-absorbed in a way that keeps me from connecting with others, and I can become bored and distracted. Sometimes the creative source and ground of being that we call God seems far removed from my life. Like everyone else, I have questions and doubts. That’s why I love being a pastor with its rhythm of relating to church members, connecting with all kinds of people in our community, preparing weekly worship services, studying, and writing sermons. These disciplines keep me grounded.

I want our church to be a spiritual oasis for seekers and those working for the common good in our city. I want us to be a safe place where people feel comfortable expressing their questions, doubts, and fears. Trying to ignore them and stuffing them down certainly doesn’t work.

Rachel Held Evans talks about the doubts and unanswered questions that kept her away from church for a long time, “Doubt will pull you out to sea like a riptide. Or hold your head under as you drown—triggered by an image, a question, something the pastor said, something that doesn’t add up, the unlikelihood of it all, the too-good-to-be-trueness of it, the way the lady in the thick perfume behind you sings “Up from the grave he arose!” with more confidence in a single line of a song than you’ve managed to muster in the past two years” (Studying for Sunday, 186).

Let’s talk about that. I want our church to be a place where honest seekers like Rachel can express such doubts and questions in a group discussion or pop into my office and say, “Hey Earl, what about this?” If that doesn’t work, perhaps we can talk about it in the church garden some morning while we take a break from pulling weeds.

Small Churches are Beautiful

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Small churches are just the right size for building caring relationships and equipping each other for the adventure of being God’s people. My friend Norman Kraus, a theologian and teacher who served in Japan, tells me about the Japanese preference for small churches. When a church reaches the size of about 20 people they think it’s time to divide and start another church. We Americans, on the other hand, think we need to close our doors if we’re that small. But this was the normal size of churches during the first centuries when size was limited by how many people fit into a typical house.

“Repeatedly throughout scripture, God affirms the few, the small, and the insignificant who live by grace, faithfulness, and courage. With few exceptions, biblical faithfulness does not come from or result in large numbers. God is more likely to count by ones and fives than by hundreds and thousands. Christ promised to be present whenever two or three come together in his name. . . The tiny mustard seed, the pearl of great price, the leaven in the loaf, the single lamp, the lost sheep and coin, the sparrows, and the numbered hairs on a person’s head, are all powerful signs and symbols that small can be theologically mighty or, and least big enough” (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 55).

Small churches are mighty if we believe we are. A familiar complaint of a small church with an inferiority complex is that we’re too small to pay a full-time pastor or to offer the programs provided by large churches. We think we’re too small to have a good Christian education program or a viable youth group. God is calling us to recognize our unique gifts and to structure our congregational life outside such boxes. Churches of more than 150 people are too big and impersonal to be the kind of church the apostle Paul was envisioning when he wrote his pastoral letters.

Large churches can work at ways to create smaller, more intimate spaces for fellowship but they’re at a clear disadvantage. People get tired of the show and get frustrated by sitting in the pews and feeling like spectators. Studies show that people in small churches attend worship services more frequently, volunteer more of their time, give more, and are more engaged in their community. That’s because, as Paul writes in Ephesians 4: 25, “We’re members of one another.” When we’re too big for that, we’ve grown too large.

We live in a society that thinks bigger is better but we’re increasingly exasperated by our over-sized, impersonal structures that quickly become oppressive. We feel it in the bureaucracy we encounter when we try to get service for something we bought at a big-box store. We feel it in our bloated political system dominated by perversely rich corporate sponsors. Granted, supersizing it can sometimes create a beneficial economy of scale but the last thing you and I need in this environment is a supersized church.

“At their best and most faithful, what does a smaller church offer the bigger, high-tech world? Smaller churches offer high touch. They offer a place of belonging to those who feel like refugees. They offer community to those who feel isolated or estranged. They offer an opportunity to make a difference to those who feel superfluous. In a world full of sickness, they offer healing and wholeness. In a world imploding in its own complexity, they offer a simple place where people feel like they’ve arrived where they ought to be. They are a God-given response to this world’s greatest needs” (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 61).

Here Comes Everybody

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The social and ethnic diversity in the metro DC area is strikingly different from the rural Pennsylvania community, where I grew up. We were all white. There was only one black family in our high school and the only Hispanics we met were occasional seasonal workers who came to pick tomatoes on a nearby farm. We were all from different Protestant denominations. The biggest religious differences were Catholics and a small Jewish community in a nearby city.

There was a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” We hardly knew these other people but had lots of stereotypes. I still remember the prejudiced things we said about them. A significant part of my life story and my faith journey is my transition from that world to being the pastor of our church in one of the most diverse regions of our world.

Our diversity in metro DC is similar to the diversity in the first-century Mediterranean cities and churches to which the Apostle Paul wrote his letters. Especially instructive is his teaching about how we bridge such differences to create an inclusive community. Like those churches we need to figure out what it means to confess that there’s no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, that we’re all part of one body (Galatians 3:28).

Asian feminist theologian Yong Ting Jin writes “Each person has a unique and creative role to play as inspired and sustained by the Spirit. Everyone is charismatic, no one is useless. As such, each member has a decisive place in the community, but all serving one another, all having and enjoying equal dignity” (In Boyung Lee, Transforming Congregations through Community, 38).

Different cultures can rub each other the wrong way. Laid on top of this is the cruel history of how our country treated Native Americans and African slaves. This is our original sin and those hurts still run deep. A different but related matter has been our recent church fight over sexual orientation and same-sex relationships that has consumed so much of our energy in the past several decades. This has been our test of finding unity in diversity and to discern together what it means to be a fellowship where all who proclaim faith in Jesus are welcomed and nurtured.

My alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, recently announced that it will not “discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or any legally protected status.” Their hiring practices and benefits will now expand to include employees in same-sex marriages. It’s a change I welcome. This should not be a church dividing issue and I look forward to the day when it no longer absorbs so much of our energy. It’s one among other issues of inclusion and there are many other things that cry out for our attention.

One verse in the song of our heart is to be a diverse church that welcomes everybody no matter who you are or what your background may be. I want our neighbors to know that about us. Perhaps we now have a unique opportunity to be welcoming in this broader sense. As the apostle Paul insisted, there is no distinction between people on any basis in the church. All are valued, all are gifted, and all are needed.

The Song of Our Heart

A good vision energizes us and gives us patience and perseverance when we face difficulties. It can also be very practical and staring us in the face. Who are we and what do we have in our hands?  We’re a congregation of about 30 fairly diverse people. Our church is part of the Anabaptist tradition with roots in the sixteenth century radical reformation.

We own a church property with definite challenges but also opportunities. Three other congregations rent space from us, making our property a financial asset. It also offers us an opportunity to relate to them and help them to grow as congregations. Another asset is that our property includes several acres of woodland and a stream. We are also strategically located in the middle of the City of Fairfax.

We have identified needs in our community including affordable housing, senior-care, homelessness, childcare, environmental protection, and creating a spiritual home in our fast paced urban environment. Our vision will seek to articulate ways we can respond to these challenges.

A vision is not something we can nail down because life is a flowing river than constantly keeps changing. Instead it gives us a sense of identity and direction. With this I will seek to identify four elements of a vision for who we are and what God is calling us to. These are the things that have inspired us and become the song of our heart.

  1. We’re a small, diverse church that welcomes everybody no matter who you are or what your background may be.
  2. We’re a spiritual home for people who are finding faith for the first time as well as those who, because of past hurtful experiences, are best described as church refugees.
  3. We’re a peace church shaped by our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors and rooted in the life and vision of Jesus.
  4. Finally, we embody a faith-based social concern that includes the poor, those on the margins of society, and our threatened natural environment.

Finding the Song of Our Heart

There’s a never-ending interweaving of continuity and change in the life of a healthy congregation. Our past is part of who we are—both the good and the bad. We can’t shuck it off even if we wanted to. Instead, we keep revising and reshaping our identity and our vision in response to the changes in our congregation and the larger community where we live. Such evolution is part of life.

Jesus’ image of a discerning scribe is apt. “Therefore, every scribe who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest” (Matt. 13:52). This is the raw stuff that informs our vision of who we are as God’s people as well as who God is calling us to become. Jesus drew on the best in the Jewish faith tradition to shape his life and teaching. These are to old things he drew out of the treasure chest. The new thing was the way he shaped it to meet the challenges of being the people of God in first century Palestine.

The scripture from Isaiah that he read in the synagogue in Nazareth, as he launched his public ministry, was the defining vision that guided the life and action of his band of disciples (Luke 4: 16-19). We might think of it as his spiritual/social platform: (1) Good news for the poor, (2) Release of captives and recovery of sight, and (3) the year of Jubilee involving a radical sharing of resources. Such a vision is a guiding dream rather than a detailed policy blueprint. It’s the song of our heart.

When I became the pastor of our church, people sometimes asked me what my vision for our congregation was and I honestly didn’t know. I knew our larger purpose of being a people of God and followers of Jesus. This sets the table so to speak. It’s our mission but it’s hardly a vision for our church.

It’s a recipe for disaster if a new pastor attempts to import her or his own vision for a congregation. The vision emerges among us as we together wrestle with who we are and how we engage our community. In my next blog post, I’ll write more about the “song of our heart” that is emerging in our congregation.